CBS Local — According to a report, 17 million babies around the world are at serious risk of brain and lung damage because of air pollution. The disturbing findings were published by the United Nation’s agency for child welfare, UNICEF.

The global humanitarian group says worldwide toxic air levels in some areas are six times higher than recommended limits and that many of those zones were found in South Asia where 12 million at-risk babies live.

“Not only do pollutants harm babies’ developing lungs – they can permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a press release.

UNICEF warns that as more countries grow into modern, urban societies, governments have failed to provide “adequate protection and pollution reduction measures” to protect young children. The report recommends wider use of filter masks in developing countries and for children to not be allowed to travel outside during spikes in pollution.

“Protecting children from air pollution not only benefits children. It is also benefits their societies – realized in reduced health care costs, increased productivity and a safer, cleaner environment for everyone,” Lake added.

According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report for 2017, nearly 40 percent of the United States’ population still lives in counties that have unhealthful levels of air pollution. California was found to have the most polluted air in the country, with Los Angeles ranking highest for ozone pollution and Visalia the top city for year-round particle pollution.

UNICEF researchers add that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical to their long-term development and must be protected from hazards that threaten their physical and mental health. The children’s charity reportedly raised over $500 million in private donations in 2016.