Satellite imaging shows that 300 million children are breathing in extremely toxic air

Walks to school are becoming hazardous.
Walks to school are becoming hazardous.
Image: Antara Foto/Wahdi Setiawan/via Reuters
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Although air pollution is bad for everyone, children who breathe in toxic air are at particular risk to suffer lifelong health consequences likes like heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer as a result.

On Oct. 31, UNICEF, the United Nation’s children’s advocacy group, released a report (pdf) on the effects of air pollution on the world’s youngest populations.

The most dangerous air pollutants are particulate matter made up of tiny, inhalable particles less than 2.5 micrograms in diameter—often referred to as PM2.5. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that when air contains an average annual amount of more than 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter, it can cause health problems. According to the new UNICEF data, 300 million children breathe air with more than six times that amount of PM2.5. Most of these children live in southeast Asia and northern Africa.

Children tend to breathe in twice as much air as adults, and have smaller airways that are more easily obstructed by infections. Tiny particulate matter can also cause stress on unborn fetuses, leading to low birth weight and early delivery, both of which come with risks of diabetes, heart diseases, obesity, and high blood pressure.

Additionally, the PM2.5 particles are so small that they can affect children’s brains. “They can enter the bloodstream, and recent medical research indicates that this can cause the degeneration of blood-brain barriers, leading to oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and damage of neural tissue,” the report states.  Taken together, these often chronic conditions can keeps kids from making it to school on a regular basis, which, over the long run, can “[affect] a child’s future income potential, productivity and eventually impacts on economic growth”—in addition to the extra medical bills families face.

A satellite image of the areas with the most particulate matter.
Areas of the world with the highest particulate matter.

For their report, UNICEF used data from the Atmospheric Composition Analysis Group at Dalhousie University, Canada. This group used satellite images from NASA to estimate the amount of particulate air pollution from sources like industrial smog, traffic pollution, and smoke generated from wood fire stoves. Based on population estimates, they found that 2 billion children likely breathe air that exceeds WHO’s “safe” pollution levels. The 300 million kids at especially high risk are likely breathing in air with extremely high smog concentrations.