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Every Breath They Take: How Air Pollution Becomes Child Health Emergency
Neural, behavioral and cognitive changes associated with air pollution exposure.
A study published in Translational Neuroscience starkly sets out the dangerous impact air pollution has on children’s brain development.
The paper by Sam Brockmeyer from the Carleton University in Canada examines the current state of research comparing the air pollutant standards with experimental, clinical, epidemiologic and pathology studies on how air pollution affects children's brains.
Air pollution is generally measured by exposure to seven dangerous substances including particulate mass (things floating in the air) and ozone. In the United States alone, 103 million people are exposed yearly to dangerous levels of particulate matter, while more than 123 million people a year are exposed to dangerous ozone levels. Linked to brain development problems, asthma, stroke and heart disease, in 2013, WHO declared the outdoor air pollution, along tobacco, a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.
Children are especially vulnerable to toxic particles due to their unique physiology: they breathe more than adults. The natural barriers in the body that protect us against them, such as the blood-brain barrier and the nasal, gut and lung linings develop as we grow older. Children spend more time outdoors, having more opportunities to be exposed to dangerous air. The paper cites experimental studies where animals exposed to air pollution displayed neurological problems, RNA and DNA damages or even showed the early symptoms of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as researchers were able to demonstrate that mice exposed to pollutants in the womb develop long lasting memory problems.
The air pollutants result among other things, in problems with blood circulation, which affects a child's development. The brains of healthy children who died in accidents in Mexico City proved to contain a higher level of the proteins responsible for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's than brains of children living in less polluted areas. Another study mentioned in the paper compared two groups of children with similar backgrounds. One group lived in a higher pollution area, and the other in an area with less. The latter did substantially better on cognitive tests – with the effect observed in kids aged between two and 14, in cities throughout North America, Europe and Asia.
The authors call for more research, especially for long lasting studies to show how pollution impacts cognitive, spatial and motor skills. It remains yet to be examined, how air pollution can be linked to birth defects in children born to individuals who were exposed to dangerous amounts of air pollutants.
Research and intervention can go hand in hand. As the health risks of air pollution become better known and defined, this information can be spread to doctors and health care professionals and the public at large. This would also allow doctors to recommend the right treatments, and improve the quality of life for children who live in such environments.
The original paper can be accessed for free on De Gruyter Online.