UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore who has just returned to New York after a visit to New Delhi and Kathmandu has said air pollution levels in South Asia were at a crisis level and needed urgent action.
“I was just in South Asia where I saw first-hand how children continue to suffer from the dire consequences of air pollution,” she said in a statement. “The air quality was at a crisis level. You could smell the toxic fog even from behind an air filtration mask. Schools and offices closed or curtailed hours. With winter approaching, the situation is set to become even worse.”
UNICEF says 620 million children in the Subcontinent breathe polluted, toxic air. Because they have smaller lungs, children breathe twice as fast as adults, and lack the immunities that come with age, children endure its damaging health and neurological effects the most.
One atmosphere, Arnico Panday
Open air, Sonia Awale
“Air pollution is associated with one of the biggest killers of children – pneumonia, and linked to asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory infections,” Fore said.
Air pollution damages brain tissue and undermines cognitive development in babies and young children, leading to lifelong consequences that can affect their learning outcomes and future potential. There is evidence to suggest that adolescents exposed to higher levels of air pollution are more likely to experience mental health problems.
“The toxicity to children’s brain development and health is also toxic to society, which no government can afford to ignore. The ripple effects extend far and wide,” added Fore, saying that when children are sick, they frequently miss school. In extreme cases, when the air is so toxic, schools may close, as we have seen in Delhi just this week.
Health expenses increase if children need care and treatment. Parents may need to stay home too, in order to care for their children. Potential income is lost, and quality of life is reduced. The effects of air pollution on children can be felt well into adulthood.
UNICEF has called for urgent action to address this air quality crisis. It said governments should take urgent steps to reduce air pollution by investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion, provide affordable access to clean public transport, increase green spaces in urban areas, change agricultural practices and provide better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals.
“Children have a right to live in a clean environment and to breathe clean air. We must act now,” the statement said.