Air pollution and children’s health
As the European Environment Agency recently published in their article, air pollution affects everyone, but children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable because their bodies, organs, and immune systems are still developing. Air pollution damages health during childhood and increases the risk of diseases later in life, yet children can do little to protect themselves or influence air quality policies. Until air pollution overall is reduced to safe levels, improving air quality around child-centric settings like schools and kindergartens can help reduce their exposure.
According to studies, there are many factors that make children and adolescents especially vulnerable to air pollution.
Children’s breathing rates are higher than those of adults and they also take in more air per kilogram of body weight. Because of their lower physical height, they breathe air closer to the ground where some pollutants, especially from traffic exhausts, are emitted and become concentrated. Their acquired dose of pollution is also elevated since they breathe faster and are often more physically active (Osborne et al., 2021). Moreover, children inhale a larger fraction of air through their mouths than adults. Due to this increased oral breathing, pollution penetrates deep into the lower respiratory tract, which is more permeable (US EPA, 2019). Children’s bodies and organs, including their lungs, are also still in development (Chen et al., 2015), which further increases the risk. Furthermore, children’s developing immune systems are weaker than those of adults, strengthening the effects of pollution (WHO, 2018).
Children are affected by ambient air pollutants from the womb through to adulthood. Every year in EEA member and collaborating countries, air pollution is estimated to cause over 1,200 deaths and the loss of over 110,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs, a measure of the burden of disease caused by a risk factor) among those aged under 18 (GBD Collaborative Network, 2020). These deaths, along with a significant burden from non-fatal diseases, are caused by air pollution through a variety of mechanisms and health outcomes, which are explored below. Before birth, ambient air pollution increases the risk of babies being smaller during pregnancy (a condition known as small for gestational age, or SGA) (Pun et al., 2021; Health Effects Institute, 2022; Nyadanu et al., 2022), having a low birth weight (Yang et al., 2020; Ghosh et al., 2021) as well as having an increased risk of pre-term birth (US EPA, 2020; Nyadanu et al., 2022; Yu et al., 2022). All of these can increase the risk of different health problems later in life. Though the evidence is less clear, particulate matter has also been linked to an increased risk of spontaneous abortion and stillbirths (Grippo et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2021; Zhu et al., 2022). Despite solid epidemiological data, the biological mechanisms are not fully understood for most of the pre-natal risks of air pollution. After birth, ambient air pollution increases the risk of several types of adverse health outcomes for children and adolescents. For example, it increases the risk of respiratory infections in children, including acute lower respiratory infections, pneumonia, upper respiratory infections, and otitis media (ear infections) (Mehta et al., 2013; Nhung et al., 2017; Bowatte et al., 2018; King et al., 2018; Låg et al., 2020; Lee et al., 2020; Health Effects Institute, 2022; Ziou et al., 2022). Short-term exposure to air pollution may also exacerbate allergies, including allergic rhinitis (runny nose), eczema and conjunctivitis (itchy eyes) in children (US EPA, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2020)…
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