Tens of thousands of pollutants now circulate through our air, water, soil and food with the potential health effects on children yet to be fully understood.
Two brothers, Tamim (10) and Hakeem (02), were photographed near the polluted Banani lake in the Korail slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh on January 28, 2024

What is pollution?

Pollution is one of the triple planetary crises, together with climate change and biodiversity loss. Pollution is understood as the presence or introduction into the environment of substances or energy that cause adverse effects on human health, the environment or living organisms; or that exceed the quality or quantity criteria established for certain environmental media. 

Some forms of pollution, such as air pollution, water contamination, industrial waste, and noise pollution are more noticeable. However, other types, such as pesticides contamination in food production or endocrine disrupting chemicals in personal care products, are less apparent. The range of solutions to these pollution problems is as diverse as their origins.

How does pollution impact children’s health?

Children’s unique metabolism, physiology and developmental needs make them much more vulnerable than adults to pollutants, which can have a lifelong impact, causing disease, disability and an early death.

Children face the highest risks to pollution because small exposures to toxic and hazardous chemicals and waste in utero and in early childhood can result in lifelong disease, disability, premature death, as well as reduced learning and earning potential.

Sources of pollution

Toxic metals and chemicals

  • Lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic metals impair children's health and development. One in three children worldwide is estimated to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Toxic metals could lead to digestive, reproductive and immune system impairment. 
  • A number of widely used chemicals can be damaging to the health of mothers, infants and children. These include highly hazardous pesticides, asbestos, benzene, dioxins and PCBs, phthalates and bisphenol A in some plastics, PFAs or the “forever chemicals”, excess fluoride and other hazardous chemicals. These toxic chemicals could lead to attention deficit hypersensitivity disorders and leukemia commonly found in children.

Hazardous waste

  • Waste disposal sites, including landfills, and recycling sites can expose children to a wide range of toxic chemicals and metals. Unsafe burning of e-waste and medical waste can release toxicants into the air, water, and soil in a community. 
  • Conflict-related contamination can include a diverse and dangerous cocktail of contaminants arising from the bombing of industrial sites, causing toxic chemical contamination of land and water sources; or from oil wells being set on fire. 
  • Toxic and hazardous waste could lead to multiple short- and long-term health issues such as premature births and disorders in the nervous, cardiovascular, as well as reproductive systems.

Environmental risks

  • Air pollution kills hundreds of thousands of children under 5 each year and contributes to chronic respiratory infections such as asthma and pneumonia, cancer, cardiovascular and other health effects. 
  • Mould, noise and radiation are other health threats in children's communities. Exposure to radiation could lead to cataract, skin cancer and damage to the immune system.
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