According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the cause of about seven million deaths per year, primarily due to stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections. About 91% of the global population lives in areas with dangerous air quality.
Children are especially susceptible to the impacts of air pollution.
What makes children vulnerable to air pollution
For many reasons, children are more vulnerable than most adults to the impacts of air pollution. Children breathe more air per unit of body weight and more rapidly than adults, increasing their risk of exposure to air toxins. They also have less-developed immune systems, lower levels of chemical-binding proteins that help to clear toxins from their bodies, and still-developing — and thus vulnerable — organs.
Exposure to air pollution, specifically fine inhalable particles, referred to as PM2.5, may alter the size of a child’s developing brain and consequently impact cognitive and emotional abilities. Air pollution has also been shown to impact children prior to birth; prenatal exposure to PM is associated with low birth weight, autism, high blood pressure during childhood, and ADHD. Children who live and play in areas with excessive air pollution are more likely to develop asthma. Those with asthma who are exposed to high levels of pollutants are more likely to develop bronchitis symptoms and, ultimately, lung damage.
Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl living in London, died in February 2013 due to “asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution,” according to coroner Philip Barlow. Her medical causes of death were listed as acute respiratory failure, severe asthma, and air pollution exposure.
Despite the fact that information on air pollution is becoming more widely available and accepted by the public, Ella Kissi-Debrah is thought to be the first person to have air pollution listed as an official cause of death. The ruling is a glaring call to action for governments around the world to tackle the global air pollution crisis, particularly for our children.
Growing research provides hope
Multiple studies have shown that improved air quality has directly improved lung function in children. Researchers in Switzerland tracked 9,000 children over a nine-year period. During a span of time in the 1990s when particulate pollution dropped, these researchers noted that the children involved in the study had fewer episodes of chronic cough, bronchitis, common cold, and conjunctivitis symptoms.
Similarly, a California study looked at long-term health impacts of air pollution on children and adolescents from 1993-2001 with a follow-up study in 2015. The researchers found that those who grew up in highly polluted areas experienced reduced lung growth, comparable to what would be expected from growing up in a home with parents who smoked. In 2015, however, those same researchers compared the health of children who grew up in the same area between 1993 and 2001 with those from 2007 and 2011. The children in the later group experienced greater lung function growth, which is thought to be directly related to improved air quality in that area.
As governments introduce new pollution-focused initiatives and work to strengthen global air quality regulations, there is hope that our children may experience healthier futures. Until then, there are immediate steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Monitor your indoor and local air quality
Knowing when concentrations of pollutants spike can help you learn when to stay indoors to avoid outdoor pollution and determine what areas of your home may contain high levels of pollutants.
If you live near a highway, power plant, factory, oil and gas site, or another pollution source, consider keeping your windows closed at all times.
Remove avoidable indoor air pollutants
Keep your home as free of dust as possible since harmful gases and particles can adhere to dust particles.
Clean or dust using damp, disposable cloths to reduce the chance that contaminants will end up back in your air. Work from the top down.
Vacuum rather than sweep with a broom to reduce airborne particles. Vacuum at least once per week and use a HEPA filter in your vacuum to remove as many particles from the air as possible.
Avoid bringing contaminated dirt and dust into your home by removing shoes, coats, and hats when you come indoors. Ask guests to do the same.
Remember to regularly change the filters in your home HVAC system.
Seek mental health treatment, if needed
Keep in mind that you do not need to deal with this on your own. You may find it helpful to work with a licensed mental health professional to help develop strategies to deal with the stress of air pollution.
Contact your elected officials and local representatives to demand better rules and regulations on industries that pollute the air
COVID-19 forced governments to act. The same sense of urgency needs to be applied to tackling air pollution, a health problem with a clear and actionable solution.
For assistance or more tips and information, please contact EHP at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org.
The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation, and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.