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Why Children are at High Risk from Air Pollution


Children are at high risk because eighty percent of their respiratory system develops after birth. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children have increased exposure to many air pollutants compared with adults because of higher minute ventilation and higher levels of physical activity. Because children spend more time outdoors than do adults, they have increased exposure to outdoor air pollution.”

Moreover, the body’s defenses that help adults fight off infections are still developing in young bodies. That’s why children have more respiratory infections than adults, which also seems to increase their susceptibility to air pollution.

Also, 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.

We know that air pollution increases the risk of underdeveloped lungs in children. A Southern California Children’s Health study looked at the long-term effects of particle pollution on teenagers. Tracking 1,759 children, 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.

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.

There is also real-world evidence that reducing air pollution can help protect children. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta commuters were told to stay home to free up the roadways. A positive unexpected consequence other than faster trip times, ground-level ozone dropped by 28% and there was a 42% reduction in asthma acute care events for kids on Medicaid.

Courtesy of the American Lung Association