When clean air becomes a luxury, healthy lives are denied

Children in a classroom in Vietnam

A canal 24 hours contaminated with chemical sewage discharged from local industrial factories. A kindergarten full of little children located five meters away. Breathing in. Breathing out. Every day.

“I don’t smell anything,” replied flabbergasted five-year-old Bao Khoi when asked if he detected something in the air. “Perhaps you mean something’s smelling good?”

Khoi is one of 300 children going to Tan Tao A preschool located in the middle of the city’s industrial hub. Clusters of factories and plants map like spiderwebs across the neighborhood. For any visitor, the strong odor wafting in the air was extreme as soon as they entered the school. The air is polluted. But for the kids, they have grown so accustomed to it that it has become an invisible part of their lives.

A typical day of a child in a big city in Viet Nam often starts with getting stranded on a motorbike in the polluted traffic on their way to school. For many like Khoi and his school mates, add on the next eight hours enduring alarming poor air. Transport emissions, agricultural burning, construction activities, coal power plants and industrial waste are all attributed to the situation. Meanwhile, rural communities have high emissions because of open burning of farmlands and waste.

In Viet Nam, urban areas such as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and Ha Noi experience the most severe air pollution, topping the world’s chart of cities with poorest air quality. The country was ranked 30th out of 131 countries in the world with most harmful air in 2022[1]. The context hasn’t changed much in recent years if not worsening as predicted. Children, especially young ones, are most affected as they breathe faster than adults and their lungs are still developing. They are also most vulnerable since air pollutants can cross from the lungs to the bloodstream, making their way to the brain and cause brain cell inflammation.

Huynh Thi Phuong Ai is a preschool teacher. She has been with Tan Tao A for six years.

Not far from Tan Tao A is another establishment, Trang Nguyen preschool. It’s located across a massive garbage disposal site. As a routine, lines of garbage trucks zigzagging at various hours of the day, dumping heavy loads.

“Mountains of garbage are disposed day-in day-out,” said Huynh Thi Tung, the school’s head teacher. “The smell is galore as multiplied with gusts of strong wind.” The school also keeps 300 children. Their parents make a living with the local factories or small businesses.

Preschool children from Trang Nguyen gather for lunch

Time to act

Since 2020, UNICEF Viet Nam pioneered in the country to advocate the Government for embarking on a holistic climate-smart education system. This means institutionalizing a national climate-smart school framework that contributes to climate change mitigation and climate related risks adaptation impacting millions of children. 

As they say, a journey of thousand miles must begin with the first steps. In HCMC and the mountainous province of Dien Bien, more than a hundred air purifiers were provided to local preschools. School curriculum was developed for mainstreaming into the system, knowledge-attitude-practice surveys conducted and trainings for educational managers and teachers on protection of children from air pollution risks carried out.

“We have noticed that the children enjoy better sleep during nap time since we operated air purifiers in classrooms,” said teacher Ai of Tan Tao A. “Most of the parents are very concerned of their children’s health and factors marring their wellbeing.”

Quynh Nga, mother of five-year-old girl named Linh Dan also attending Tan Tao A preschool shared her thought: “We as parents are aware of the harmful air in the school. We have the knowledge that toxic particles in the air may penetrate into our kids’ lungs and cause havoc.” “Nevertheless, we have been trying to protect them the best we can – putting on a mask, supporting the school with whatever it plans to do to make it as green as possible like growing trees and plants.” “But more should be done – to prevent and change the situation – and not just to respond.”

“We rejoiced as Linh Dan came home and told us that the school had installed an air purifier in her classroom, and it was put on every day,” added she. “This is important to us.”

A recent U-Report Viet Nam’s poll showed that 90 per cent of over 2,600 Vietnamese young respondents confirmed air pollution had been affecting their lives to a certain or large extent. Around 54 per cent reported frequently experiencing breathing difficulties and other health issues due to air pollution. And 21 per cent admitted air pollution had caused them to do less outdoors activities and exercise.

“Most parents are conscious of the children’s health and air pollution issues that the school is facing,” said school head teacher Tung of Trang Nguyen preschool. “They raised their concern but have the understanding that the school alone might not be able to alter the course.”

Fence off harms with community strengths

“The knowledge related to risks associated with air pollution and how to protect school children from air pollution impacts have not yet included in our educational content. This is an emerging area that requires our attention and action,” said she.

“UNICEF’s trainings are essential for us both managers and teachers.” said Tung. “When everybody is brought on board – education policy makers, school managers, teachers, parents and children themselves – we build a community of knowledge and protection.”          

“It’s important that parents are also taking part in prevention and protection. Simple daily actions such as refraining from burning rubbish at home or wearing masks for children at critical times when air quality is bad would definitely help.”

“Parents listen to their children’s learning from school and that’s a good way to educate.” “The children themselves will be the changing agents for the future.” “Kids often place their sincere trust on what teachers tell them.”

“For the educational sector, a cross system rights-based approach is indispensable in the context of Viet Nam’s overall strategy in addressing air quality. Investment in development of educational framework, supplies of air purifiers to preschools as well as capacity building for school managers and teachers nudge the system timely and necessarily,” said Le Anh Lan, UNICEF Viet Nam Education Specialist.

“With this partnership, UNICEF strives to be among the first to advocate for better air quality for children in the country.”

“And this is just the beginning.”

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Geographic area:
East Asia & Pacific