Air pollution can damage children for life
Exposure to air pollution can prevent children's organs from developing to full capacity, since they have more sensitive lungs and immature immune systems.
Children are unable to choose their environment and cannot link the sensation of illness to a specific exposure or a certain environment, thus they are powerless to remove themselves from harmful exposures. It is therefore up to us as guardians and adults to shelter them from these exposures. To highlight the topic of children and why they need extra protection from polluted air, I have on behalf of AirClim written a booklet on the issue and explain why children need clean air, as well as the health effects of exposure to pollution. I will here only cover the why which is independent on geographic region, but the booklet as a whole can be found at Airclim.org.
Why children need clean air
Cells are the basic building blocks of our body’s organs. For our organs to function, and for children to grow and develop healthily, our cells need three fundamental things:
2. Energy – from food
3. Oxygen – from the air we breathe.
Without enough oxygen, our bodies will cease to function optimally. For children, a lack of oxygen means that their organs will not develop properly and grow to their full capacity. Thus, the function of these organs might be chronically reduced. This is alarming, as the functioning of our organs and our ability to oxygenate our bodies is vital to remain healthy throughout our lifespan.
Children’s lungs are not yet fully developed at birth. It is not until three years of age that children’s lungs and airways will resemble a small version of the adult respiratory system. As children grow, their lungs and airways mature and expand. The lungs continue to grow until a child’s early teenage years, but their exact size and volume will vary from child to child. Damage to children’s lungs during this period might cause irreversible impairments, and the younger the child, the worse the damage.
Air pollution particles tend to stick to children’s lung tissues to a greater extent than they do in adults, with a difference of 10–20 per cent per breath. This is of great concern as children also breathe and ingest more air pollution in relation to their body weight than adults. The concentrations of air pollutants in children’s bodies and respiratory systems will therefore be much higher than in those of adults.
Inhaling air pollutants will provoke an inflammatory response and, in the case of particles, also congest the lung tissue, which decreases the body’s ability to oxygenate. These effects will cause our body’s immune system to react. However, if the concentrations of inhaled air pollution are high and the exposure is persistent, the immune system will not be able overcome these harmful effects. Because they have less-developed and weaker immune systems, children are particularly susceptible. To compensate for a lower concentration of oxygen in our blood, the heart must work harder to circulate a larger amount of blood per minute to our cells. Consequently, air pollution exposure also increases the burden on our cardiovascular system. Children who grow up in areas with constantly elevated levels of air pollutants thus experience a chronic level of bodily stress due to inflammatory responses and decreased ability to oxygenate. This may prevent their organs from developing to full capacity and mean that their future health as grownups could be fundamentally impaired.
Emilie Stroh, Lund University, expert on children andenvironmental exposures.