WHO: Environmental pollution causes one in four infant deaths

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest levels of infant mortality caused by unhealthy environments. [Flickr/Julien Harneis]

Unhealthy environments kill 1.7 million children under the age of five each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst-affected region. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

According to two reports published by the WHO on Monday (6 March), air pollution (atmospheric, indoor, passive smoking) is the biggest environmental cause of infant mortality, responsible for 570,000 deaths each year. Diarrhoeal diseases linked to a lack of access to clean drinking water and poor sanitation and hygiene come in second place, with 361,000 deaths.

Premature births, also linked to air pollution, are the third environmental cause of infant deaths (270,000). And in fourth place, contagious diseases related to poor water sanitation, such as malaria, kill 200,000 infants each year.

Pesticides and endocrine disruptors

On top of poor air and water quality, the WHO also pointed out the risks associated with infants’ exposure to certain chemical products, such as pesticides and endocrine disruptors. Consequences can include premature birth, certain types of cancer (particularly leukaemia), birth defects and even poisoning in cases of acute exposure.

For Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, “A polluted environment is a deadly one, particularly for young children. Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

Fewer deaths than in 2002

Despite these alarming figures, the situation appears to have improved since the WHO last published a report on child mortality in 2004, based on data from 2002. That year, global infant mortality reached 12.7 million; more than double the figure for 2012.

In 2002, 37% of these infant deaths were attributed to environmental factors. Progress in this regard has been made by improving environmental factors linked to contagious diseases, birth problems (prematurity, low birth weight, etc.) and nutritional deficiencies, largely thanks to increases in development aid.

For example, the number of children suffering from malnutrition fell from 25% in 1990 to 14% in 2015. Over the same period, 2.6 billion people benefitted from improved access to clean water and 2.1 billion from access to toilets. This in turn brought down the number of infant deaths due to diarrhoea from 1.2 million in 2000 to 526,000 in 2012. The number of infant deaths from malaria also plummeted by 58% between 2000 and 2015.

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