Environmental pollutants kill an estimated 1.7 million children worldwide, attributable to polluted air and contaminated water, among other things.
The World Health Organization reported March 6 that each year, 1.7 million people under the age of 5 die from environmental pollution. The most common cause is respiratory infections and pneumonia, caused by polluted air and second-hand smoke. It causes an estimated 570,000 deaths a year.
Contaminated water is another danger to young children. Over 360,000 children died from diarrhea as a result from polluted water and lack of access to sanitation and hygiene.
"A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children," said WHO director Dr. Maria Neira.
"Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits," she said in a statement released by WHO.
Contaminated air and water have a particularly acute effect on small children without fully-formed airways and immune systems. Harmful exposure to contaminants often begins in the womb, as mothers are exposed to the polluted air and water before giving birth.
WHO reports that even improperly recycled cell phones and other electronic waste can be a major health hazard, especially for children.
CNN reports that over 3 million people worldwide die from complications related to air pollution. China reported over 1 million deaths related to air pollution, and in India, over 600,000 people die each year from polluted air. Babies can develop pneumonia and even permanent respiratory diseases such as asthma from indoor or outdoor air pollution.
What's more, 38,000 people die annually from air pollution in the United States.
"Both indoor and outdoor air pollution have an important effect on the health and development of children, and not just in the stereotypical 'polluted cities' context but also for very poor rural families who cook indoors," Joy Lawn, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CNN.
"Clean water is taken for granted by families in high-income countries, and yet those children in the hottest climates, facing the greatest risks of infectious diseases, are the very ones with least access to clean water," she said.
The WHO said in a statement that several countries participate in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which stipulate countries will work on a set of targets to guide improvements in children’s environmental health. The SDGs seek to end preventable deaths of newborns and children under five by 2030.