July 23, 2024
Home » UNICEF report highlights air pollution as second leading cause of premature death worldwide

UNICEF report highlights air pollution as second leading cause of premature death worldwide

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The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has issued a grave warning about the escalating impact of air pollution on human health, revealing it to be the second leading global risk factor for premature death. This alarming revelation comes from the latest edition of the State of Global Air (SoGA) report, developed in collaboration with UNICEF and published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI).

Released in its fifth edition, the SoGA report uncovers a staggering toll of 8.1 million deaths attributable to air pollution in 2021 alone. This figure underscores the widespread and lethal nature of air pollution, which also contributes to a multitude of chronic diseases that burden healthcare systems, economies, and societies globally.


The report places a spotlight on the vulnerability of children under five, noting that over 700,000 deaths in this age group in 2021 were linked to air pollution. These young lives were cut short primarily by pollutants such as outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which originates from the burning of fossil fuels and biomass in transportation, residential heating, and wildfires.

PM2.5 has been identified as the most consistent and accurate predictor of poor health outcomes worldwide, responsible for more than 90% of global air pollution-related deaths.

Additional harmful pollutants contributing to this global health crisis include household air pollution, ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), the latter commonly found in traffic exhaust. Together, these pollutants exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, significantly deteriorating public health.

Dr. Elena Craft, President of HEI, expressed hope that the report would catalyze meaningful change. “Air pollution has enormous implications for health. We know that improving air quality and global public health is practical and achievable,” she stated.

The report also highlights the environmental impact of pollutants like PM2.5, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. As the climate warms, regions with high levels of NO2 are expected to see increased ozone levels, further intensifying health risks.

Dr. Pallavi Pant, HEI’s Head of Global Health, emphasized the disproportionate burden borne by vulnerable populations. “This new report offers a stark reminder of the significant impacts air pollution has on human health, with far too much of the burden borne by young children, older populations, and low- and middle-income countries,” she said. Dr. Pant called for cities and countries to prioritize air quality in health policies and non-communicable disease prevention programs.

Children, the report underscores, are uniquely susceptible to the effects of air pollution, with risks beginning as early as the womb. Exposure in early childhood is linked to pneumonia, asthma, and a higher mortality rate, particularly affecting those in low-income regions more severely than their counterparts in high-income countries.

UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kitty van der Heijden highlighted the urgency of the situation, revealing that nearly 2,000 children under five die daily due to air pollution. “The global urgency is undeniable,” she stated. “It is imperative governments and businesses consider these estimates and locally available data to inform meaningful, child-focused actions to reduce air pollution and protect children’s health.”

Despite these dire statistics, the report also brings a glimmer of hope. Increased awareness of the dangers of household air pollution has led to a significant 53% reduction in the death rate of children under five since 2000, thanks to better access to clean cooking energy. Additionally, regions with severe air pollution are making strides by installing air pollution monitoring networks and enforcing stricter air quality regulations, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

This comprehensive report not only highlights the critical health challenges posed by air pollution but also underscores the pressing need for global and local actions to mitigate these risks and safeguard future generations.

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