Polluted Environments Kill 1.7M Kids Yearly: WHO

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Marc 6, 2017 -- Unhealthy and polluted environments cause more than 1 in 4 deaths of children younger than age 5 worldwide, the World Health Organization says.

Environmental factors such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, secondhand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and poor hygiene kill 1.7 million children a year, according to two new WHO reports.

Diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia account for a large portion of the most common causes of death among children ages 1 month to 5 years, but can be prevented through environmental improvement measures such as clean cooking fuels and access to safe water.

"A polluted environment is a deadly one -- particularly for young children," WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in an agency news release. "Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water."

Exposures to harmful environmental factors can begin in the womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Infants and preschoolers exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and secondhand smoke are at increased risk for pneumonia in childhood and a lifetime increased risk of asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases, WHO said.

It also warned that childhood exposure to air pollution may increase the lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.