Recent environmental intelligence. Part 2. Air pollution and kids.

We know that air pollution, which takes many forms, including fine particulates, poses risks for all life on earth. But the recent environmental intelligence, in the form of last month’s UNICEF report, Clear the Air for Children, developed by Nicholas Rees et al., details how air pollution’s impacts on children can be particularly severe[1].

From the report’s foreword, written by UNICEF’s Executive Director, Anthony Lake:

[Air pollution] causes miscarriages, early delivery, and low birth weight.

It contributes to diseases that account for almost 1 in 10 of all deaths of children under the age of five.

It can harm the healthy development of children’s brains.

It is a drag on economies and societies, already costing as much as 0.3 per cent of global GDP – and rising…

… the magnitude of the danger it poses – especially to young children – is enormous.

Children breathe twice as quickly as adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. Their respiratory tracks are more permeable and thus more vulnerable. Their immune systems are weaker. Their brains are still developing.

Ultrafine, airborne pollutants — caused primarily by smoke and fumes — can more easily enter and irritate children’s lungs, causing and exacerbating life-threatening disease. Studies show these tiny particles can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which is less resistant in children, causing inflammation, damaging brain tissue, and permanently impairing cognitive development. They even can cross the placental barrier, injuring the developing fetus when the mother is exposed to toxic pollutants.

So urban children growing up too close to industrial sites, smoldering dumps, and electrical generators that burn biomass fuels like dung … rural children living in unventilated homes where food is prepared on smoking cook stoves … refugee and migrant children staying in tents filled with wood smoke … All these children are breathing in pollutants night and day that endanger their health, threaten their lives, and undermine their futures.

Many of these children are already disadvantaged by poverty and deprivation. Some are already at heightened risk from conflicts, crises and the intensifying effects of climate change. Air pollution is yet another threat to their health and wellbeing – and yet another way in which the world is letting them down.

The sheer numbers of children affected are staggering. Based on satellite imagery, in the first analysis of its kind, this report shows that around the world today, 300 million children live in areas with extremely toxic levels of air pollution. Approximately 2 billion children live in areas where pollution levels exceed the minimum air quality standards set by the World Health Organization. These data don’t account for the millions of children exposed to air pollution inside the home[2].

The impact is commensurately shocking. Every year, nearly 600,000 children under the age of five die from diseases caused or exacerbated by the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that diminish their resilience and affect their physical and cognitive development.

If the language seems breathless, perhaps it should be.

To help see this, compare some complementary material from the October 29th print edition of The Economist – a publication not given to overstatement – which spoke to the global importance of early childhood development (naturally, the term has an acronym in that world – ECD). A sample of what The Economist had to say:

multiple benefits…come from putting more emphasis on early childhood development (ECD), a term that includes everything that can be done to boost the physical and intellectual health of youngsters before they reach the age of eight.

According to the Lancet, a medical journal, in 2000 just seven developing countries had a comprehensive approach to ECD. Now almost half do. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a well-meaning set of targets launched in January, call for universal access to good-quality ECD by 2030…

…The youngsters themselves are the main, though not the sole, beneficiaries. Another recent study in the Lancet reckons that 43% of under-fives in poor countries, in other words about 250m kids, will fail to meet their “developmental potential” because of avoidable deficiencies in ECD.

Their young brains are sensitive. In the first three or so years after birth, when up to 1,000 synapses are formed per second, they are vulnerable to trauma which triggers stress hormones. Though some stress is fine, too much is thought to hinder development. Neglect is also corrosive. Young children benefit from lots of back-and-forth dealings with adults. Research by the Rural Education Action Programme, based at Stanford University, suggests that rural children in China have “systematically low cognition”, partly as a result of being reared by grandparents who pay them little attention while parents work in cities.

Supporters of ECD add that its benefits go well beyond the children. Better-raised toddlers mean less need to cope with dysfunctional adults at public expense. The World Bank says every dollar spent on pre-school education earns between $6 and $17 of public benefits, in the form of a healthier and more productive workforce with fewer wrongdoers. Many developing countries seem to have accepted this case. China has vowed to provide pre-school facilities for all youngsters; India has the same goal. African countries are also investing in toddlers. Ethiopia says it will increase pre-school enrolment to 80% by 2020, from 4% in 2009; Ghana has added two years of pre-school education to its system. Uganda wants every state primary school to have a nursery.

This burst of enthusiasm is welcome and overdue. In the OECD club of mainly rich countries, spending on ECD amounts to around 2.4% of GNP; in poorer countries, where there is so much scope for improvement, the share is less than 1%, says the World Bank. Poor countries spend far more on regular schools. In Latin America, for every dollar spent on children under five, $3 is spent on those between six and 11.

…ECD must focus as much on physical well-being as on training the mind[3]. That element is now missing: most ECD policies put the stress simply on educating kids aged four or five. In fact, health and nutrition are at least as important. A paper in 2008 by Cesar Victora of Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil tracked cohorts of children in five countries (Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and South Africa) and found a strong correlation between height at the age of two, school results and wages in later life. So correcting the bad nutrition (of expectant mothers as well as infants) that leads to stunting should be a priority. Supplements like iodine and iron for pregnant mothers and vulnerable babies can boost educational performance.

“Environmental intelligence”? The term calls to mind an analogy with intelligence agencies such as CIA and NSA. Worldwide collection of diverse data from disparate sources. Highly-trained analysts sifting through it all (these days with the help of big data, data analytics, and AI), teasing out important connections, and identifying options for action.

Taken together, today’s two scraps of intelligence remind us: if we know big challenges are coming, if we want to equip tomorrow’s society and workforce to deal with them, we have invest in our youngest children today. We have to do more to monitor and clean up the physical environment where they’re growing up. We have to provide the blend of nurture and mental stimulus that will help them develop their fullest potential. We will need to strengthen K-12 education across the board and STEM education in particular.

Interestingly, these insights come at a moment in history when we’re better able than usual to see the consequences, good and bad, of such investments. Take just one example: not just the outcome but the entire conduct of the election campaign just concluded might have been different had we Americans invested differently over the past half-century to nurture and educate the children who grew up to become today’s voting public. Perhaps a larger percentage would have voted. Maybe they’d have focused less on past grievances and more on how to move forward. Perhaps they’d have looked at more substantive issues, and demanded more specifics on those issues from both parties. But we may have equipped them poorly. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) argues[4], in A Crisis in Civic Education, released at the beginning of the year, that: Our vast national expenditure on higher education has had little or no measurable effect on giving students the skills and knowledge they need for effective citizenship.

To back up their claim, ACTA offers these statistics (among others; the report is worth the read in its entirety):

  • Only 20.6% of respondents could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. More than 60% thought the answer was Thomas Jefferson—despite the fact that Jefferson, as U.S. ambassador to France, was not present during the Constitutional Convention… College graduates performed little better: Only 28.4% named Madison, and 59.2% chose Jefferson.
  • How do Americans amend the Constitution? More than half of college graduates didn’t know. Almost 60% of college graduates failed to identify correctly a requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment.
  • We live in a dangerous world—but almost 40% of college graduates didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
  • College graduates were even confused about the term lengths of members of Congress. Almost half could not recognize that senators are elected to six- year terms and representatives are elected to two-year terms.
  • Less than half of college graduates knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the U.S. Senate.
  • And 9.6% of college graduates marked that Judith Sheindlin—“Judge Judy”—was on the Supreme Court!

The ACTA emphasis was on facts… but the recent election campaign suggests we’re also struggling with values – including but not limited to the importance of listening to and respecting each other, and working toward the unity needed to keep our interconnected society humming. Things we’re supposed to learn at home and at school. And though the ACTA focus has been domestic, the same comments pertain to democracies and voting publics worldwide.

Protect, nurture, and educate kids?

There’s plenty to do. And compelling reason to do it.

(Full disclosure… my daughter works in ECD; she lives and breathes the issue. As a result, so do those of us in her orbit. She’s a force of nature.)


[1] Chances are good you’ve seen this already; the report occasioned a spate of news media coverage.

[2] [Emphasis added. Yet another example of innovative application of space-based Earth observations for societal benefit. Increasingly, NOAA and companion agencies are moving into environmental forecasting – air quality, harmful algal blooms, and more.

Watch for it. Society will internalize the new intelligence – first to warn of pollution episodes, and over time to motivate and guide strategies and actions to improve air and water quality.

[3] [Emphasis added.]

[4] George Will’s recent column first brought this report to my attention.

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