How to minimise the impact of air pollution on child health
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from the moment of conception until the age of two, are critical to every child. UNICEF refers to these years as a unique period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established. A two-year-old’s brain, for example, is twice as active as an adult’s brain in terms of building bridges between nerve cells for future use. The ability to process images (vision), sound (hearing) and to recognise and remember language and images such as faces, are all developed during a child’s first 1000 days.
Healthcare advice has rightly focused on the nutrition of pregnant women and new-born children with governments around the world – from the Philippines to India – highlighting the need for enhanced care over this period. But new research shows that clean air is fundamental to a child’s physical and cognitive development. Thanks to increasing industrialization, more vehicular exhaust and increasing environmental damage, more children are at risk from rising levels of air pollution, which takes its toll on a child’s health in a number of ways.
- Asthma is the most common chronic lung condition in children worldwide. Inhaling indoor and outdoor air pollutants increases the risk of developing childhood asthma. An October 2018 study reports that 190 asthmatic children living in New York City neighbourhoods with higher air pollution levels suffered more frequent asthma attacks and required emergency care more often than residents in less polluted areas.
- Lung development and function are impaired when children breathe polluted air, a Lancet Public Health study Air pollution stunts lung development and function. Lung capacity was reduced up to 10 per cent in children aged between eight and 10 years old, who were living in highly polluted areas in London. Researchers suggest they may never recover full lung capacity due to arrested lung development.
- Obesity: Early exposure to high levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide from diesel engines, especially during the first year of life, contributes to childhood obesity. Researchers from the University of Southern California report that children breathing diesel engine fumes tend to be overweight, have a higher body mass index (BMI) by age 18 and are more likely to develop asthma.
- Learning: UNICEF estimates that 17 million babies under the age of one live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than recommended international limits, and where they breathe toxic air that may affect brain development. Air pollution exposure can permanently damage brain development and subsequent learning abilities due to inflammation caused by ultrafine pollution particles entering the bloodstream and the brain.
Protecting babies against air pollution
What few know is that indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Luckily there are several ways to take control of the air in your home where new mothers and young children tend to spend the most time. The following checklist can help make your indoor air baby-safe:
- Cigarette smoke – don’t allow smoking indoors
- Chemical cleaning detergents
- Heavily scented personal hygiene products such as perfume and hair sprays
- Candles, especially scented ones
- Open fires (without good ventilation)
- Carpeting, vinyl and linoleum flooring
- Non-natural textiles
- Washing the baby’s clothes before use with a mild detergent
- Airing out all new furniture well in time for the baby’s arrival
- Not painting or putting in carpets for six months before the baby’s born
- Monitor the air quality in the baby’s room
- Letting an air purifier run 24/7
- Having only plastic-free toys made of wood or natural rubber
- Using organic, natural fabrics and textiles
While industrial pollution and climatic factors may be out of our control, new parents can nevertheless take action to improve infant children’s health. No child should have to breathe dangerously polluted air.