Medics will tell you that adults breathe an average of 14-16 times per minute whereas newborn babies breathe up to 30-60 times per minute. That sounds harmless enough. Unless you are breathing in polluted air – in which case infants and kids can find that ruinous for their development and future well-being.
The issue of unhealthy air is becoming more conspicuous and publicly debated. Followers of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the UK will have noticed that the very first question to Theresa May in the House of Commons recently was about air pollution in London and, in particular, its effects on children’s development. Proof, (if indeed it was necessary), that air pollution is fast becoming top news. In particular, it reflects the concern that it is one of the most significant threats to kids’ health worldwide.
The statistics are shocking. Globally, two billion kids – 90% of the total– are exposed to air pollution at and above the World Health Organization (WHO) environmental guidelines. In fact, a recent UNICEF study found that a staggering 17 million infants worldwide are breathing polluted air. More than two-thirds of the affected infants – over 12 million – live in South Asia and are exposed to pollution six times higher than recommended limits. And research also shows that polluted air poses risks to the health of the unborn and could lead to impaired brain (intellect) development.
Studies established air pollution link to kids’ health
Studies also show that there is a definite correlation between air pollution and lung function in kids. For example, a recent investigation into the health of children in southern California – an area marked by markedly improved air quality over the past several decades – established that ‘long-term improvements in air quality were associated with statistically and clinically significant positive effects on lung function growth in children’. (The health of a total of 2120 children between the ages of 11 and 15 was surveyed over a four-year period during which levels of PM 2.5, PM 10 and nitrogen dioxide were reduced.)
Furthermore, the report established there were bonuses for adults: ‘Consistent with the growth effects we have observed in children, there is evidence that reduced exposure to pollution in adulthood can slow the decline in lung function and increase life expectancy.’
Another major survey established clearly the high death rate among adults due to long-term exposure to PM 2.5. In particular, it emphasised the shockingly high death rates from various conditions linked to high levels of PM 2.5 in developing countries. South and East Asia, for example, contributed 59 percent of the 4.2 million global deaths attributable to PM 2.5.
Even in London kids suffer from air pollution
Many cities in Asia suffer from appallingly high levels of air pollution, damaging kids’ lives in the process. Air pollution in a city like London, by contrast, is not so bad. Nevertheless, the British capital still has a problem. A recent British Medical Journal article, for example, studied hundreds of thousands of births in London and tried to establish a link between hazardous air pollution levels and low birth weight – which is defined as less than 2.5kg. Scientists established a 15% increase in the risk of low birth weight for every additional 5 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of fine particle pollution.
The average exposure of pregnant women in London to fine particle air pollution is 15µg/m3, well below UK legal limits but 5µg/m3 higher than the acting WHO guideline. Cutting pollution to that guideline would prevent no less than 300-350 babies a year being born with low birth weight, the researchers estimated.
“The UK legal limit is not safe and is not protecting our pregnant women and their babies,” said Mireille Toledano from Imperial College London. “We know that low birth weight is absolutely crucial. It not only increases the risk of the baby dying in infancy, but it predicts the lifelong risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease etc. You are set in stone the whole trajectory of lifelong chronic illness.”
Of course, many cities around the world, Delhi being a notable example, suffer from far higher levels of toxic air than London. The toll of air pollution on unborn babies and kids there is horrific. Pneumonia claims 920,000 children under the age of 5 every year, and the risk is greatest for those under the age of 1, and air pollution is surely a causal agent for some of these cases as was shown in a new study linking bacterial virulence and colonization with air pollution.
A recent BMJ report commented. “The pregnancy effects of extreme exposure environments like Delhi are unmeasured, and there is an urgent need to turn attention to such environments where large numbers are at considerable risk of harm.” The report continued that air pollution is already causing millions of early deaths every year among adults and children: “And that is not taking into account deaths in utero or those resulting from exposure during pregnancy because we just don’t have the data yet.”
Kids’ brains vulnerable to air pollution
The damaging effect of air pollution on the brains of babies and young kids is perhaps the most shocking discovery of latest research. During development, young brains are especially vulnerable to even small doses of toxic chemicals. This is exacerbated by the increased breathing rate of infants that we alluded to earlier.
“The brains of babies and young children are constructed by a complex interplay of rapid neural connections that begin before birth,” says Pia Rebello Britto, the UNICEF chief of early childhood development. “These neural connections shape a child’s optimal thinking, learning, health, memory, linguistic and motor skills.”
Exposure to polluted air makes children more vulnerable to developmental problems. This may prevent the full growth of their brains. Recent research has also shown that air pollution can stunt growth, impact intelligence and memory, and cause psychological issues such as anxiety, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Obviously, all these conditions will adversely affect a child’s performance in school and limit their social potential.
The air inhaled by infants and children during their first eight years is critical to build their immunity and ward off potential allergies. Exposure to air pollution during this crucial time adversely affects the functioning of kids’ lungs, causing colds, flu, bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia. Sadly, the lungs of growing children are more permeable to air pollutants because their defence system is not adequately evolved.
The implications for expectant mothers are also very serious. Fact is, there are few ways to avoid chronic exposure to air pollution during pregnancy. Only drastic action from governments to curb air pollution from vehicles and other sources will improve the situation. It’s small wonder that China, for example, has seen a mass exodus of more affluent families seeking a better life for their kids, away from air pollution.
What can be done?
In the end, it boils down to the choices that we as individuals make. If more of us traveled to work by bus or train, rather than by car, then this would create less air pollution. Better still, if we all cycled or walked to work, then this would spare the atmosphere from any traffic-related pollution at all. Kids can urge their parents to use their cars only for short journeys, so reducing emissions.
Fortunately, kids are becoming more environmentally-aware and learning to limit or avoid air pollution – by reducing waste. Almost half of the so-called greenhouse effect is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Other sources of energy could be used that do not release carbon dioxides such as wave, wind or solar power.
Signs are that today’s generation is learning to respect the environment more than their parents. But in the end, the more concerted action is needed from governments and advocacy groups to reduce air pollution by setting targets to reduce emissions. In so doing they will be helping to safeguard the health and well-being of our future generations. Southern California provides one of the best textbook examples of how to reduce air pollution levels. There, rigorous policies have been implemented to reduce pollution from mobile and stationary sources, especially diesel emissions from cars. In particular, gasoline-powered and diesel-powered engines contribute to air pollution and stricter emission standards for both types of vehicles have helped to improve air quality.
Hopefully, California’s example will be emulated elsewhere. After all, children’s health should be more important than anything else.