SEE: The cost of traffic - thousands of children harmed by vehicle emissions

Without action, outdoor air pollution is predicted to be the leading cause of environment-related child death by 2050, reports the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society.

Air pollution has the greatest traffic-related health impact on babies and children aged under five.

At least 127 000 young children died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2013 from lower respiratory diseases including pneumonia - now the biggest killer of those younger than 5-years-old.

A silent killer

The FIA said: "Although there is little research dis-aggregating the contribution of traffic emissions from other sources of outdoor pollution, industrial, agricultural or domestic, it is widely accepted that urban traffic pollution is a significant contributor to the problem, not least because harmful emissions from cars and trucks are delivered directly at street level into the mouths and noses of children."


South Africa's Wheels Well's Peggie Mars says: "Children as young as 5 walk to school and have nobody at home when they get there after school. This is a sad, but real socio-economic problem.

Road traffic one of the biggest killers of African youths: 227 000 children are killed on the world's roads every year - report

"We do not have much of a vehicle related pollution problem in low-income and no income communities. But during winter the burn wood for warmth and cooking. This causes serious health issues for children. 

"Visibility gear remains the cheapest and immediately effective tool to keep young children safe as pedestrians," Mars said.

The FIA foundation reveals common cause of deaths among children:

Invisible damage

"The damage done to the children by vehicle emissions is invisible but serious. It begins in the mother's womb and reaching far beyond the headline figure of attributable child deaths, can affect health and life chances for a lifetime," the FIA said.

Yet the 2-billion children live in areas breaching WHO air quality guidelines, while every day 300-million of these children are walking to school and playing in what can only be described as a poisonous toxic soup.

                                                               Image: Children Health Initiative / FIA Foundation

"Living more active lives, moving more energetically, breathing more quickly, taking in more air as a proportion of body weight than adults, staying outdoors for longer, children are particularly exposed to air pollution.

This traffic pollution causes internal injury. And because children's lungs are still developing, they are much more vulnerable than adults. Children's lungs and air passages are smaller, more permeable and more easily blocked," the FIA said.

Children’s developing immune systems are more exposed to respiratory infections resulting from exposure to harmful pollutants. 

"In addition to pneumonia, air pollution is also a contributory factor to asthma, one of the most common chronic health conditions in children," the FIA said.

                                                                        Image: iStock

"Particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) constitute the major traffic pollutants. Ultrafine PM2.5 (about 1/30th the width of a typical human hair) can penetrate deep inside the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing health problems including heart disease. Nitrogen oxides can exacerbate pneumonia, asthma, and other bronchial symptoms, as well as causing lung inflammation and reduction in overall lung function.

In addition, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are typically found in areas of high vehicle, particularly diesel traffic, contribute to a loss of or damage to white matter in the brain, affecting the neural connections crucial for learning and development," the FIA said.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, PAHs have been linked with higher risk of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other learning disabilities. There is also growing evidence that exposure to high levels of traffic pollution, for example at schoolsk im g in close proximity to busy roads, could be affecting the learning capacity of millions of schoolchildren," the FIA said.

                                                      Image: Children Health Initiative / FIA Foundation

"Prenatal exposure to PAHs has also been found to increase risk of breathing difficulties and infection in babies.

UNICEF estimates that almost 17 million babies under the age of one live in some of the most severely affected regions of the world, where outdoor air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits. The majority of these babies – approximately 12 million – live in South Asia," the FIA said.

For too many millions of people outdoor air pollution is a scourge from before the cradle, affecting health and quality of life right through to a prematurely early grave.