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Environmental risks result in 1.7 million child deaths every year, says WHO

Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images

More than one in four deaths of children under five are as a result of living in unhealthy environments, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

Two new reports from the WHO cited a range of risks – from indoor and outdoor air pollution to unsafe water and second hand smoke – for the deaths of 1.7 million children under five every year.

"A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children," Margaret Chan, the WHO's director general, said in a statement. "Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water," Chan added.

The WHO said that the exposure of young children to indoor and outdoor pollution and second hand smoke heightened the risk of pneumonia in childhood and increased the risk of diseases such as asthma.

Breaking down the figures further, the WHO said that 570,000 children under five died every year from respiratory infections attributable to air pollution and second hand smoke. In addition, poor access to clean water, hygiene and sanitation contributed to 361,000 deaths from diarrhoea.

"A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children," Maria Neira, WHO director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said.

"Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits."

Emerging threats were also noted. The improper recycling of electrical and electronic waste – with old mobile phones given as an example – was seen as exposing children to dangerous toxins that could result in lower intelligence, cancer and lung damage.