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Mayors tell automakers to stop producing gas-powered cars

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Four cities take a stand after a World Health Organization study shows virtually all kids worldwide breathe dangerous air

A family wearing face masks walks through Seoul during a smog alert. Even in wealthy countries, 52 percent of children are exposed to toxic levels of air pollution.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Mayors from four global cities are calling for automakers to stop producing gas- and diesel-powered cars after a startling report that 93 percent of the world’s population under the age of 15 is breathing toxic air.

The report, which was released by the World Health Organization (WHO) ahead of the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, says most children worldwide are exposed to dangerously high levels of the fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, a pollutant attributed to vehicle emissions.

“As mayors of the world’s great cities we are transforming the way that our citizens move around the city—prioritizing walking, cycling, and clean public transport,” said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who issued the statement with the mayors of Copenhagen, Seoul, and Medellín, Colombia.

“I urge every city to join us and send an unmistakeable message to vehicle manufacturers: The health of our children is more important than the health of your profits,” she said.

Hildalgo is the leader of C40, which has organized a consortium of cities worldwide pledging to eliminate fossil fuels in transportation. Last week, a Paris court ruled a highway along the Seine must remain car-free in an effort to improve public health.

Exposure to dangerous pollution is most pronounced in low- and middle-income countries, according to the WHO study, where 98 percent of kids under five are breathing high levels of PM2.5.

Yet even in wealthy countries over half of children under five—52 percent—are breathing air that the WHO defines as toxic.

“The WHO report clearly shows that adults’ daily behaviors are threatening the health of innocent children,” said Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. Earlier this year, Seoul saw PM2.5 levels that were six times higher than WHO deems to be safe.

Children under 15 are more likely to suffer adverse affects from airborne pollutants, with children under five most at risk. But detrimental health outcomes are not limited to respiratory illness and asthma—sustained exposure also puts children at risk for other cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases later in life.

In fact, one in ten deaths of children worldwide can be attributed to air pollution, according to the study.

Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to air pollution created by vehicles, which can lead to premature birth. A recent U.K. study looked at the proximity to major roadways for a half-million babies born over the span of a decade and concluded that particulate matter is increasing the risk of low birthweight.

“As this report sets out, a child who is exposed to air pollution in early life can suffer a ‘life sentence’ of ill health,” said Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities. “The moral and practical case for urgent, bold, and far-reaching action to reduce emissions, including calling an end to the fossil fuel era, is now utterly irrefutable.”