New York — Only 6 per cent of children in Africa live in areas where air pollution is reliably measured at ground-level, leaving half a billion children across the continent living in areas with no reliable means of measuring air quality, according to a new UNICEF report released on World Environment Day.
For babies and young children, breathing particulate air pollution is extremely harmful to their health and development, as it can cause permanent damage to brain tissue and lungs. UNICEF warns that since air pollution is not monitored in Africa to the same extent as other parts of the world, we are not only potentially underestimating the severity of the impact - we might also be underestimating its scope. In Europe and North America 72 per cent of children live where air pollution is so measured, 43 per cent in Asia, and 25 per cent in South America.
The report notes that air pollution is a growing challenge for Africa. Air pollution also impacts ecosystems - vital to livelihoods and health - as well as food crops. A recent study noted in the report estimates the economic cost of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution across Africa to be $215bn.
Deaths from outdoor air pollution in Africa have increased 57 per cent over nearly three decades, from 164,000 in 1990 to 258,000 in 2017. Without ground-level monitoring stations that reliably measure air quality, Africa's children are increasingly at risk of unwittingly breathing air that is toxic for their health and brain development, and the ability to devise effective responses is greatly compromised.
"Air pollution is a silent killer of children. And in Africa especially, we know the problem is severe, we just don't know how severe," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "Reducing children's exposure to pollutants - and therefore reducing the damage to children's health and early brain development - begins with a reliable understanding of the quality of air they are breathing in the first place."
Silent Suffocation in Africa measures the population of children living near reliable ground-level air quality monitoring stations. The report also offers guidance on different types of ground-level monitoring systems from regulatory-grade monitors to low-cost sensors.
Ultrafine pollution particles are so small they can enter the blood stream, travel to the brain, and damage the blood-brain barrier, which can cause neuro-inflammation. Other types of pollution particles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can damage areas in the brain that are critical in helping neurons communicate, the foundation for children's learning and development.
To understand the full extent of the problem, UNICEF urges governments to put in place permanent and high-quality ground-level monitoring stations as public goods. When combined with satellite imagery, such stations would form the backbone of a system that would help improve the reliability of less precise monitoring stations that capture variations across cities.
The report notes ground-level monitoring systems would also help advance innovative approaches that crowdsource data on air pollution which help build understanding in air quality as well as adjust behaviour to prevent exposure. Reliable ground level data helps to better capture the daily - even hourly - fluctuations in air quality. Monitoring also helps to identify sources of pollution, shaping public health policy, and informing action and interventions that target the most affected.
Noting some of the ways to reduce air pollution - as well as children's exposure to it in the first place - UNICEF urges governments to:
Invest in renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion; provide affordable access to public transport; increase green spaces in urban areas; provide cleaner cooking and heating solutions; and create better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals.
Prevent children's exposure to air pollution, including by creating smart urban planning so major sources of pollution are not located near schools, clinics or hospitals; and minimize exposure in the home.
Improve children's overall health to improve their resilience. This includes the prevention and treatment of pneumonia, as well as the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding and good nutrition.
"A young child's brain is especially vulnerable because it can be damaged by a smaller dosage of toxic chemicals, children breathe more rapidly, and physical defenses and immunities are not fully developed," said Fore. "If toxic air is stunting our children's development, it is stunting our societies' development as well. All governments should take the necessary steps to make sure we know exactly what we are putting into the air and what it is doing to our children's health and well-being."