Week of 8/13/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What are the leading causes of child mortality around the world, and what can be done about it?

—Susan Hale, Oquawka, IL

The statistics are staggering. In the world’s poorest countries, over 30,000 children under the age of five die each day from preventable causes related to conditions of extreme poverty. Rock Star Bono and others tried to call attention to this fact last year in television ads showing well-known celebrities snapping their fingers every three seconds, each snap representing another tragic child death.

A baby girl born in Sub-Saharan Africa today faces a 22 percent risk of death by age 15, and more than a third of casualties are babies who don’t survive their first month. They suffer from low birth weight due to their mothers" poor nutrition, and then lack access to adequate nutrition themselves. The World Health Organization says that poverty-related malnutrition is the key factor in over half of all childhood deaths.

Many children suffer from debilitating infections virtually right out of the womb, and analysts say that often casualties could be prevented if just basic sanitation were available. Drinking-water pollution is a leading culprit. In areas that lack proper sanitation and that may have just one water source, supplies can easily become contaminated from bacteria in human waste and garbage. According to United Nations statistics, as many as four billion people—two-thirds of global population—lack access to safe, clean water.

Concern from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spurred renewed efforts to increase education and distribute low-cost but needed tools such as antibiotics and sterile medical implements. "Some global health problems, like AIDS, have no easy solution—but this isn’t one of them," says computer-geek-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates. "The world has an opportunity to stop millions of newborn deaths each year."

Debt and population issues are also among the underlying causes of this global tragedy. Some poor nations must pay more in service of international loans than on the health and education of their people. Yielding to pressure from "Make Poverty History" advocates, leaders of the world’s top industrialized nations last year agreed to cancel $40 billion in debt owed by the world’s 18 poorest countries. However, experts point out that this only covers about a sixth of the debt owed, for example, by African nations.

And birth rates continue to soar well above the replacement level of two children per couple, and population is growing well beyond the "carrying capacity" of these poor countries. This has a profound effect on the environment as well as on human misery. According to Population Action International (PAI), "More than 200 million women in the developing world today wish to delay or end childbearing but do not have access to modern and effective contraceptives." In spite of this, the Bush Administration has steadily cut family planning aid to developing countries in the name of preventing abortions, though on June 9 of this year the House overwhelmingly adopted a bill to restore aid that had been previously cut. Says PAI, "U.S. leadership and investments in international family planning assistance are critical in order to ensure healthy mothers, healthy pregnancies, and ultimately, healthy families."

CONTACTS: Make Poverty History Campaign, www.makepovertyhistory.org; Gates Foundation Child Health Program, www.glf.org/GlobalHealth/Pri_Diseases/ChildHealth/default.htm; Population Action International, www.populationaction.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Why does air quality get so bad during heat waves?

—Chad Muller, Wellesley, Mass.

Air quality decreases during times of hot temperatures because the heat and sunlight essentially cook the air along with all the chemical compounds lingering within it. This chemical soup combines with the naturally occurring nitrogen oxide in the air, creating a "smog" of ground-level ozone gas. This makes breathing difficult for those who already have respiratory ailments or heart problems and can also make healthy people more susceptible to respiratory infections.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), urban areas are the most susceptible because of all the pollution being emitted from cars, trucks and buses. The burning of fossil fuels at power plants also emits a considerable amount of smog-making pollution. Geography is also a factor. Broad industrialized valleys penned in by mountain ranges, such as the Los Angeles basin, tend to trap smog, making life miserable for those people working or playing outside on hot summer days.

The non-profit watchdog group Clean Air Watch reported that July’s intense heat wave caused a blanket of smog stretching from coast to coast. Some 38 U.S. states reported more unhealthy air days in July 2006 than during the same month the previous year. And in some particularly at-risk locales, airborne smog levels exceeded the acceptable healthy standard by as much as 1,000-fold.

In light of recent heat waves, the EPA urges urban dwellers and suburbanites to help reduce smog by: using public transit and carpooling to reduce vehicle trips; refueling cars at night to prevent escaping gas vapors from getting cooked into smog by sunlight; avoiding gas-powered lawn equipment; and setting air conditioning thermostats a few degrees higher to help reduce the fossil fuel burning needed to power them.

For its part, the EPA is quick to point out that the regulations on power plants and car fuels that have been instituted over the last 25 years have significantly reduced smog in American cities. EPA spokesman John Millett says that "ozone pollution concentrations have declined about 20 percent since 1980." Millett adds that the agency is in the process of implementing new programs to control emissions from diesel trucks and farming equipment, and is requiring cleaner diesel fuel to help further reduce smog levels. New rules to regulate marine vessels and locomotives should also help minimize future smog alerts.

"Long-term we have made improvements
but this heat wave and the accompanying smog is a very graphic reminder that we still have a significant problem," says Frank O"Donnell, Clean Air Watch’s president. "Unless we start getting serious about global warming, predicted increases in global temperatures could mean continued smog problems in the future. And that will mean more asthma attacks, disease and death."

People should avoid strenuous outdoor activity during heat waves in areas plagued by smog. For more information, check out the government’s "Ozone and Your Health" report on the website airnow.gov.

CONTACTS: Clean Air Watch, www.cleanairwatch.org; AirNow’s Ozone and Your Health Report, airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=static.brochure