Spotlight risk

Air pollution

Air pollution poses severe risks to children's health, causing respiratory problems, asthma, developmental issues and even long-term damage.
A pediatrician is checking the boy's lungs in a polyclinic in Tsaghkadzor.

The problem

According to the World Health Organization, in 2019, 99 per cent of the world’s population lived in places where the air is unhealthy, placing children’s health and development at serious risk. Tragically, many children die as a result of air pollution: the 2020 State of Global Air report estimates almost 500,000 newborns worldwide died in 2019 because of air pollution exposure.

In 2021, an estimated 2.3 billion (or about 30 per cent of the global population) still relied on polluting fuels and technologies for cooking, which generates harmful household air pollution. The overwhelming majority of these families reside in low-and middle-income countries. Exposure is particularly high among women and children, who spend the most time near cooking areas.

Combustion of fossil fuels, such as lignite coal, industrial processes, open burning of waste, waste incineration, agricultural practices, construction, demolition, motor vehicles and transportation, and natural processes, such as dust storms and volcanic eruptions can cause outdoor air pollution. Climate change is also expected to worsen air quality with increased ground-level ozone and wildfires.

Outdoor air pollution interacts closely with indoor air pollution in homes, schools, health facilities and other spaces, which can be major sources of exposure for children.


per cent

of children globally breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk every day.

Children’s unique vulnerability

Children are physically more exposed to air pollution for several reasons. Young children breathe more rapidly than adults and take in more air relative to their body weight. They also live closer to the ground, where some pollutants reach peak concentration. Children spend more time outdoors than adults, which can increase their exposure to ambient air pollutants. Children also spend a significant amount of time indoors, and so may be significantly affected by household air pollution.

Children are physiologically more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because their brains, lungs and other organs are still developing. Some air pollutants can cross the placenta and affect developing babies. Air pollution can also affect lung function and development, which continues through adolescence.

Health impacts on children

Air pollution negatively affects many systems in children’s bodies, causing morbidity and mortality in the youngest of children, including neonates. When pregnant women are exposed to polluted air, they are more likely to give birth prematurely, and the babies may have a low birth weight. Air pollution also negatively affects neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and can trigger asthma and childhood cancer. Children who have been exposed to high levels of air pollution may be at greater risk for chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, later in life.

There is robust evidence that air pollution is strongly associated with pneumonia, which accounts for 22 per cent of all deaths of children between 1 to 5 years of age. Ground-level ozone is a powerful airway irritant and can cause breathing problems, especially in children with asthma. Almost half of all deaths due to lower respiratory tract infections in children under 5 years of age are caused by particulate matter from household air pollution.

Otitis media (an infection in the middle ear) in children has also been clearly associated with ambient air pollution exposure. Exposure to traffic-related air pollution is also associated with an increased risk of childhood leukaemia.

Air pollution threatens the health of children globally

What partners can do

Set up and maintain air quality monitoring systems and report information to the public

such as by integrating it into daily weather forecasts and noting levels of air pollution that are dangerous to children and pregnant women.

Increase the ambition of national climate and environmental policies

such as National Adaptation Plans or Nationally Determined Contributions, ensuring inclusion of child-sensitive health commitments and specific air quality targets.

Enhance indoor air quality in daycare centres, hospitals and schools

such as kindergartens through regular monitoring, better ventilation, filtration systems and other approaches.

Provide affordable, clean fuel options and incentives

to shift to cleaner modes of transport, including more fuel-efficient school buses.

Strengthen policies and investments

to expedite the transition to clean, efficient energy and transport across all sectors.

Assess children’s environmental history of air pollution exposure.

Counsel on exclusive breastfeeding, nutrition, exercise, early screening to detect air pollution-related illnesses and recommend ways to reduce air pollution exposure.

Advocate with decision-makers

including members of local governments, community leaders, school boards and others, on air pollution risks and ways to mitigate the health concerns for children.

Invest in 'net zero' and more resilient health systems 

reducing pollution and emissions.

Strengthen health sector readiness

in advance, in terms of information, human and financial resources, medicine and equipment.

Conduct research on the effects of air pollution on children's health

as well as potential treatment, prevention and management.

Advocate with decision-makers

including members of local governments, community leaders, school boards and others, on air pollution risks and ways to mitigate the health concerns for children.

Train health workers, teachers and people in other child-centric careers

to understand and help protect children from air pollution, as well as advocate for effective and comprehensive policies to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution.

Conduct research

on the effects of air pollution on children’s health as well as potential treatment, prevention and management.

Set ambitious targets with a clear action plan to reduce emissions

such as mapping air pollution footprints, investing in and using clean technologies and raising awareness among employees and customers about air pollution.

Go beyond industrial compliance of environmental and health regulations

to undertake due diligence to ensure children are protected from air pollution throughout the supply chain.

Create new business opportunities

offering green technology and green services to consumers.

Collect and share disaggregated data and evidence

with the public sector that can close information gaps about air pollution and children’s health.

Partner with governments, civil society and other stakeholders

to protect children’s health from air pollution caused by industrial processes.


Making air pollution visible

Featured networks and coalitions
Girls cook lunch at a girl’s boarding school established for rural teenage girls that don’t have access education, in Dire Dawa, 13 January 2015.


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