My Right to Clean Air: A Child-Protection Dilemma in Humanitarian Settings

February 19, 2019
By Eunice Phillip, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health

Poverty, displacement, and breakdown in family structure, as seen in refugee and displaced person’s camps, increase a child’s exposure to actual or potential harm or abuse. To protect the health and development of the child, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends creating safe and sustainable environments, and during ‘Soapbox Snapshots: Leaving no one Behind’ session at the Global Health Exchange conference in Dublin, Tuesday November 6th 2018, Niall Roche, a seasoned environmental health specialist with a special interest in reducing air pollution, highlighted household air protection as an oft-overlooked threat to child safety and protection.

Despite evidence of detrimental health effects, the staggering number of children and continued use of polluting fuels in humanitarian settings leaves little doubt that global society fails to protect these vulnerable children. This is a direct violation of Article 24.2.c of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, “To combat disease [through] provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.”
Globally, an alarming 65 million people were forcibly displaced during 2017. Even more disheartening is that over 50% of these are children under the age of 18 years, forced to live in refugee camps and displaced settings. Research evidence demonstrates the detrimental effect on the children’s health and wellbeing from polluted air caused by the use of household fuels. Using polluting fuel in these humanitarian settings exposes these already vulnerable children to poor air quality and clearly jeopardises child protection.

An established example of ill- health resulting from harmful air-borne toxins is pneumonia. Described by William Osler in 1901 as, “The captain of the men of death,” pneumonia killed almost 880,000 children in 2016 according to the WHO. There is no exact figure representing the number of children’s deaths in humanitarian settings.

A defence of the global community was raised during the question and answer discussion following Niall’s presentation. It is a always a priority issue especially when there are other emergencies requiring available funds. A conference attendee stated that, “In these settings, [you] choose the most pressing need.” Personally, I fail to agree with this rationale. For what is the sense in spending millions for a ‘priority’ now? Then turn around and spend billions fighting pneumonia and post-traumatic counseling for parents losing a child from exposure to household air pollution caused by from toxic fuel.

As GOAL’s Geraldine McCrossan stated, “When we leave a population because it is not the most pressing, it will be the most pressing when we get back to it.” Pushing back the priority of access to clean air in humanitarian settings creates significant gaps in the health and wellbeing of the children when they are relocated.

A simultaneous priority approach needs to to be developed and incorporated into financial planning to minimise the effect of this prioritising. It is paramount that children are protected from toxins and polluting fuel in the place where they seek solace. We should leave no child behind.

8th November 2018


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