As Indians awake to smoke-filled skies from a
weekend of festival fireworks, Delhi’s worst season
for air pollution begins – with dire consequences.
A new report from the UN children’s agency,
UNICEF, says about a third of the two billion
children in the world who are breathing toxic air
live in northern India and neighbouring countries,
risking serious health effects including damage to
their lungs, brain and other organs.
Of that global total, 300 million children are
exposed to pollution levels more than six times
higher than standards set by the World Health
Organization, including 220 million in South Asia.
The alarming numbers are hardly a surprise.
Delhi’s air pollution, among the world’s worst,
surges each winter because of the season’s weak
winds and countless rubbish fires set alight to help
people stay warm.
Even days before the city erupted in annual
firework celebrations for the Hindu holiday of
Diwali, recorded levels of tiny, lung-clogging
particulate matter known as PM2.5 were
considered dangerous at well above 300
micrograms per cubic metre.
On Monday, Delhi residents were advised to stay
indoors, with health warnings issued for the young,
elderly and those with respiratory or heart
Since being identified as one of the world’s most
polluted cities, Delhi has tried to clean its air in
It has barred lorries from city streets, required
drivers to buy newer cars that meet higher
emissions standards and carried out several weeks
of experimental traffic control, limiting the number
of cars on the road.
But other pollution sources, including construction
dust and cooking fires fuelled by wood or
kerosene, continue unabated.
Children face much higher health risks from air
pollution than adults. Children breathe twice as
quickly, taking in more air in relation to their body
weight, while their brains and immune systems are
still developing and vulnerable.
“The impact is commensurately shocking,” with
600,000 children below the age of five across the
world dying each year from air pollution-related
diseases, Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director,
said in the report released on Monday.
“Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that
diminish their resilience and affect their physical
and cognitive development.
The report was released in the run-up to the
COP22 UN climate change summit in Marrakech
starting on November 7.
Of the two billion children worldwide breathing
unhealthy air, the report puts 620 million of them
in South Asia – mostly in northern India.
Another 520 million children are breathing toxic air
in Africa, and 450 million in East Asia, mainly
China, according to the report, which combined
satellite images of pollution and ground data with
demographic patterns to determine which
populations fell into the highest risk areas.
A WHO report released in September indicated that
90 percent of the world’s population breathes
polluted air and that three million deaths each year
are linked to exposure from indoor and outdoor