UNICEF Representative in Việt Nam Rana Flowers highlights the importance of raising awareness of the harm air pollution can do to children. Việt Nam News reporter Nguyễn Khánh Chi finds out more.
Why are young children most vulnerable to air pollution? What are the immediate and long-term consequences?
Outdoor air pollution caused mainly by vehicles and industry emissions as well as indoor air pollution from burning wood or coal to cook are significant threats to children’s health.
I don’t have Việt Nam specific data but global evidence suggests that 300 million children live in areas where the air is toxic – levels that are at least six times over international guidelines and around two billion in areas that are above WHO guidelines.
This constitutes a long-term hazard for all, but is particularly hazardous for children.
They are uniquely vulnerable because their lungs are growing and underdeveloped and their cell layer in the respiratory tract is more permeable. Children’s immune systems are also still developing so they are more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria.
Disturbingly what we know today is that pollution also impacts brain development. Children breathe twice as fast; the fine particles permeate the lungs, go into the blood and impact brain development. Research now shows that high exposure to air pollution and reduced verbal and nonverbal abilities for children lower memory test scores and grades at school.
Studies also confirm that pollution can affect the health of the foetus: high particulate matter – 1/13th of the width of the human hair – is associated with early foetal loss, prevents delivery and a lower birthrate.
It’s hard to find specific data related to air pollution and Vietnamese children. Why do you think the impacts of air pollution on the health of Vietnamese children are not given due attention?
The first reason I would cite is that we simply did not know. It is only now with MRI and health technology that we can see, measure the damage to children’s lungs and to their brains. Getting information to parents, teachers and health workers to protect children in particular is crucial.
Secondly, children are often silent victims. They are passive and more vulnerable, but as a society we have not realised just how much more vulnerable our children are. As adults, as parents – we do care about that – and that is why you see mounting pressure around the world to address air pollution.
And let’s not underestimate the power of the voice of older children – they are leading a change in many countries – calling out the long-term impacts, demanding change. As future voters and leaders – this is a great trend.
Why do you think the Vietnamese Government should prioritise addressing air pollution?
A society like Việt Nam that focuses on growing its economy for the future cannot afford to ignore how air pollution is slowing down that process.
All governments are under increasing pressure to actively address the causes of air pollution. We know that air pollution is worsening - we know the drivers include industrialisation, urbanisation, some agricultural burning practices and in particular the drive for energy.
In fact we have to ask ourselves: is our demand for energy for increasing access to electricity harming our children more than we know?
The answer is yes. And it is a resounding yes when governments are trying desperately to meet the demand of their people for electricity by investing in dirty coal. It is electricity today, but a health and education compromised population of tomorrow. It is not a wise long-term investment – and it does impact the achievements of many of the sustainable development goals.
Who should be responsible for protecting children from pollution?
Everyone is responsible for protecting children. Governments have to be bold and take a strong stand today for low carbon options for energy. They have to invest in public transport and introduce laws that set the tone for all to follow. They also have the responsibility to make information and data available about air quality and to take measures that will improve air quality. They also need to impose particle emission restrictions on industry and improve access to quality healthcare for children and vaccinations against pneumonia. Governments can also act to improve the situation particularly in and around schools.
These are the kind of steps that governments can take – but really it starts with a commitment from each citizen. Individuals, parents and families can act to reduce their own use of electricity, to invest in solar power in their homes; and to minimise exposure of children and to improve air quality inside their homes.
As a society, we all have a responsibility to be aware and conscious in our choices and decisions that can affect children, like reducing energy consumption, relying on clean energy sources, and other measures that will greatly improve our quality of life and that will inevitably improve the lives of our children. But change starts with the children themselves. We have to make sure that we educate our children about how to protect the environment and turn them into agents of change for future generations. VNS