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Two billion children breathe toxic air worldwide, Unicef says


A man rides a scooter on a road enveloped by smoke and smog in New Delhi (AP)

A man rides a scooter on a road enveloped by smoke and smog in New Delhi (AP)

A man rides a scooter on a road enveloped by smoke and smog in New Delhi (AP)

Two billion children in the world are breathing unhealthy air, risking serious health effects including damage to their lungs, brains and other organs, Unicef has said.

A new report by the organisation said 300 million children are exposed to pollution levels more than six times higher than standards set by the World Health Organisation, including 220 million in South Asia.

Of the two billion children at risk worldwide, the report puts 620 million of them in South Asia - mostly northern India.

Another 520 million children are breathing toxic air in Africa, and 450 million in East Asia, mainly China, according to the report.

It combined satellite images of pollution and ground data with demographic patterns to discover which populations fell into the highest risk areas.

Children face much higher health risks from air pollution than adults.

Children breathe twice as quickly, taking in more air in relation to their body weight, while their brains and immune systems are still developing and vulnerable.

Unicef executive director Anthony Lake said the impact is shocking, with 600,000 children younger than five across the world dying every year from air pollution-related diseases.

"Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that diminish their resilience and affect their physical and cognitive development," he said.

For the Indian capital, the alarming numbers are hardly a surprise. New Delhi's air pollution, among the world's worst, spikes every winter because of the season's weak winds and countless rubbish fires to help people stay warm.

Even days before the city erupted in annual fireworks celebrations for the Hindu holiday of Diwali, recorded levels of tiny, lung-clogging particulate matter known as PM 2.5 were considered dangerous on Friday at well above 300 micrograms per cubic metre.

By Monday morning, the city was recording PM 2.5 levels above 900 mcg per cubic metre - more than 90 times higher than the WHO recommendation of no more than 10 mcg per cubic metre.

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New Delhi residents were advised to stay indoors, with health warnings issued for the young, elderly and those with respiratory or heart conditions.

Officials said the high pollution levels were made worse by the burning of spent crops in agricultural fields in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana.

Since being identified as one of the world's most polluted cities in recent years, New Delhi has tried to clean its air.

It has barred cargo trucks from city streets, required drivers to buy newer cars that meet higher emissions standards and carried out several weeks of experimental traffic control, limiting the number of cars on the road.

But other pollution sources, including construction dust and cooking fires fuelled by wood or kerosene, continue unabated.


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