Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, for 3 reasons. First, they have underdeveloped bodies that are less adept at ridding these toxins. Second, because their bodies are still growing and cells rapidly dividing, the cellular genetic damage caused by air pollution can lead to more profound deficits later on. Finally, children breathe in more air per pound of body weight and also tend to breathe through their mouth more than their nose, which means a direct hit from some of the toxins that might have been filtered out in the nostrils.
The effects of air pollution during pregnancy
What a mother breathes in during pregnancy can have consequences for her developing baby. Prenatal exposure to small particles of soot have been linked to low birth weight and small head circumference. A study by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute determined that traffic-related air pollution even at low levels can lead to babies that are small for their gestational age. (Denworth, 2013) Dr. Frederica Perera also notes that scientists have found “evidence that air pollutants can change chromosomes in utero.” (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p.112)
Air pollution & its health effects on children
Exposure to air pollution can stunt a child’s development and hinder the functioning of vital organs, particularly the lungs. “If they start breathing air that’s polluted, the air sacs would stop growing,” says Kari Nadeau, Ph.D., an allergist and immunology specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine. Case in point: One Swedish study of 1,900 children found that kids exposed to the most traffic-related air pollution in the first year of life had significantly decreased lung function when compared with other kids at age 8. (Denworth, 2013)
Toxic exposures appear to alter the function of cells that regulate the immune system, making them more sensitive and leading to autoimmune disorders like asthma or allergies. “There is overwhelming evidence now that any type of air pollution, especially ozone and diesel-exhaust particles, can make asthma worse,” says Dr. Nadeau. (ibid)
Poor and inner-city children are hit especially hard. Schools in Washington Heights, New York, have special clinics devoted exclusively to kids with asthma, since so many students struggle with this condition – a condition both created and worsened by air pollution. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 113) Poverty-related stress can also worsen the effects of air pollution, because stress in general compromises a child’s immune system and allows these toxins to do more damage than they otherwise might.
Air pollution & behavioral changes in children
In the first study of its kind, researchers measured the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the cord blood of babies and their mothers’ blood at birth. It was found that the mothers who breathed in the most PAHs had children with a fourfold increase in the risk of anxiety problems at age six. They also found a greater risk of depressive symptoms and difficulty paying attention. (Park, 4-2-2012)
Another study in Sweden found that even small increases in air pollution were linked to a significant increase in treated psychiatric problems among children. (Mechling, 2016) There also may be links to autism. A 2000 survey by California’s Dept. of Health Services found that kids with autism were 50% more likely to be born in neighborhoods that registered high amounts of air contaminates like cadmium, mercury, and nickel. (Shabecoff &Shabecoff, 2010, p. 62)