Focusing on Children's Health

Children may look like miniature adults, but they’re not. Air pollution is especially dangerous to them because their lungs are growing and because they are so active.

Just like the arms and legs, the largest portion of a child’s lungs will grow long after he or she is born. Eighty percent of their tiny air sacs develop after birth. Those sacs, called the alveoli, are where the life-sustaining transfer of oxygen to the blood takes place. The lungs and their alveoli aren’t fully grown until children become adults.79 In addition, the body’s defenses that help adults fight off infections are still developing in young bodies.80 Children have more respiratory infections than adults, which also seems to increase their susceptibility to air pollution.81

Furthermore, children don’t behave like adults, and their behavior also affects their vulnerability. They are outside for longer periods and are usually more active when outdoors. Consequently, they inhale more polluted outdoor air than adults typically do.82

In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a special statement on the dangers of outdoor air pollution on children’s health, pointing out the special differences for children.83

Air Pollution Increases Risk of Underdeveloped Lungs

Another finding from the Southern California Children’s Health study looked at the long-term effects of particle pollution on teenagers. Tracking 1,759 children between ages 10 and 18, researchers found that those who grew up in more polluted areas face the increased risk of having underdeveloped lungs, which may never recover to their full capacity. The average drop in lung function was 20 percent below what was expected for the child’s age, similar to the impact of growing up in a home with parents who smoked.84

Community health studies are pointing to less obvious, but serious effects from year-round exposure to ozone, especially for children. Scientists followed 500 Yale University students and determined that living just four years in a region with high levels of ozone and related co-pollutants was associated with diminished lung function and frequent reports of respiratory symptoms.85 A much larger study of 3,300 school children in Southern California found reduced lung function in girls with asthma and boys who spent more time outdoors in areas with high levels of ozone.86

Cleaning Up Pollution Can Reduce Risk to Children

There is also real-world evidence that reducing air pollution can help protect children. Two studies published in 2005 added more weight to the argument.

Changes in air pollution from the reunification of Germany proved a real-life laboratory. Both East and West Germany had different levels and sources of particles. Outdoor particle levels were much higher in East Germany, where they came from factories and homes. West Germany had higher concentrations of traffic-generated particles. After reunification, emissions from the factories and homes dropped, but traffic increased. A German study explored the impact on the lungs of six-year olds from both East and West Germany. Total lung capacity improved with the lower particle levels. However, for those children living near busy roads, the increased pollution from the increased traffic kept them from benefiting from the overall cleaner air.87

In Switzerland, particle pollution dropped during a period in the 1990s. Researchers there tracked 9,000 children over a nine-year period, following their respiratory symptoms. After taking other factors such as family characteristics and indoor air pollution into account, the researchers noted that during the years with less pollution, the children had fewer episodes of chronic cough, bronchitis, common cold, and conjunctivitis symptoms.88

FACT: Air pollution remains a real and urgent threat to public health in the US, despite real progress since 1970.

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SOTA 2011 Survey