What are the health effects of air pollution on children?

In-depth guide to the effects of air pollution on the health of children and on your own health, along with detailed advice on how to protect them and campaign for clean air in your local area.
  Published:  11 Jul 2017    |      12 minute read

It can be easy not to worry about the current state of the world until it affects you personally. A headline such as "London breaches annual air pollution limit for 2017 in just five days" would have given me passing concern a few years ago. After all, I’m not a cold-hearted monster. But now that I actually live in London, suddenly this information becomes all the more terrifying.

We care about and discuss things like climate change and environmental problems, but the issues seem so large and out of our own control, that they end up as background noise.

How do I unblock the drain in my shower? How do I tell my friend politely that I don’t want to go to his band’s gig? How do I negotiate London transport with my 8-week old baby for the first time to attend a doctor’s appointment?

It’s with this final concern that I realise these huge issues around air pollution and a lack of clean air suddenly become more pressing.

Having recently become a parent, I realised I knew nothing about the health effects of air pollution. Not just dirty air's effects on my own health, but on the health of this screaming (but magical, lovely, wonderful, etc) bundle of baby.

Active parents and the fight against air pollution

There are already countless hurdles to overcome in the outside world when you have a child. For an active parent – the cyclists, walkers, runners among us - these are merely obstacles to triumph over.

But it’s not just the cyclists, runners and walkers among us who want to encourage their children to enjoy the outdoors. Some of us walk to a local playgroup, enjoy the sunshine outside a pavement café, have a picnic in a park.

All of these pleasures should be low risk. But now the UK’s air is considered a "public health emergency" we really need to learn more about the air we breathe. And we need to understand its effects on our health and our children’s health.

So this is an investigation as well as a guide. Together we’ll learn about the health effects of air pollution on children of all ages. As well as what the UK government is doing to help, what we ourselves can do about it and how we can help the campaign for clean air.

What are the types of air pollution?

Here we’re most concerned about three types of air pollutant that cause environmental and health problems:

Particulate matter (PMs). The most dangerous tiny particles of air pollution can penetrate deep into our lungs, and can even get into the bloodstream. Particulates worsen heart and lung disease. Fine particle air pollution is responsible for 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2). A toxic gas that you might sometimes notice as an orange haze over a city. High levels of NO2 can cause a flare-up of asthma or symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing.

Ground level ozone (O3). Ground level or "bad" ozone is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. It can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.

How does air pollution affect your health?

Let’s start with you, the grown-up reading this. (Youngsters - your section is directly below this one, so please skip ahead. It might do you some good.)

As for you, the 18+ year-old, how does the air you breathe affect your own health? Probably not in a positive manner if you’re driving around and smoking ciggies. But hey, let’s look at the science…

What are the health effects of air pollution on adults?

There’s a variety of air pollutants that either have known or suspected harmful effects on human health. So says the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (or Defra as we’ll refer to them from now on).

In the UK air pollution comes from a variety of sources but the government says pollution from road traffic is now the biggest problem, and diesels the worst of all.

Every year in the UK “around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, which plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day.” This is according to a recent study by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).

...around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, which plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day.

Royal College of Physicians

These health challenges cost the UK more than £20 billion every year.

“Health challenges” seems like a euphemism for a mixture of chronic conditions and serious-to-life-threatening diseases.

Before we get to the optimistic “how can we improve the air we breathe and stay healthy?” section, let’s first look at the damage that air pollution can do to our health.

Cancer

  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared outdoor air pollution, including Particulate Matter (PM), and also diesel exhaust, carcinogenic to humans, in the strongest class (Group 1). This is the same class as tobacco.

Asthma

  • Two thirds of people with asthma say that poor air quality makes their asthma worse. This puts them at higher risk of an asthma attack, according to Asthma UK. They also state that being exposed long-term to high concentrations of air pollution may cause adult-onset asthma.

Stroke and heart failure

  • Short-term exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of hospitalisation or death from stroke in the following week. This is according to research published by the British Medical Journal.

Heart disease

  • Air pollution is linked to the development of cardiovascular diseases, including furring of the arteries. It can also exacerbate conditions for those already living with heart disease. British Heart Foundation's Professor David Newby’s research suggests that people living with heart failure have an increased risk of being hospitalised and of dying where pollution levels are high.

Diabetes

  • The development of Type 2 diabetes is not only due to lifestyle or genetic factors, but also traffic-related air pollution, according to research by the American Diabetes Association.

Dementia

  • Links are being suggested between environmental factors and Alzheimer’s Disease. As found by PNAS, toxic magnetite particles from air pollution have been discovered in human brains in “abundant” quantities. This substance can create oxidative cell damage, which is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

So that’s you - an adult in a world where more than 3 million people die prematurely each year from outdoor pollution. According to The Guardian, this is more than the combined deaths from HIV/Aids and malaria.

My mind reels at the thought of the damage being done to infants and children who are still developing.

Let’s take a look at the cost of air pollution on children.

Health effects of air pollution on children and young adults

“While most children will not be affected by short term peaks in ambient air pollution, some individuals, such as those with existing heart or lung conditions, may experience increased symptoms.” As Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, the head of Public Health England’s environmental change department told The Huffington Post earlier this year.

So what known links are there between air pollution and children’s health?

Asthma

According to Asthma UK:

  • Children and young adults with asthma are more at risk from the effects of pollution because they have faster breathing rates and their lungs are still developing.
  • Children living in areas with high pollution are more likely to have reduced lung function as adults.
  • Long-term exposure to high concentrations of air pollution may cause asthma in children.

Lung development

  • Children aged between 8-10 years old, who lived in highly polluted parts of cities, had up to 10% less lung capacity than normal. Dr Ian Mudway, a leading expert on the air pollution impacts on child health, suggests this reduced lung function may never be reversed.

Brain development

  • Air pollution exposure in pregnant women was found to harm brain development and contribute to behavioural and cognitive problems later in childhood.

Obesity and diabetes

  • It’s possible that air pollution can be a catalyst for obesity and diabetes in young children. A recent study of children aged 8 to 15 who were exposed to higher levels of air pollution were also found to have a lower insulin sensitivity. As well as a decline in beta-cell function and a higher body mass index (BMI) at age 18.

So ends the more terrifying section of this article. Let’s move on to what the UK government is doing to solve the problem and what you and I can do to help.

What’s being done about air pollution in the UK?

You might have seen reports in 2016 that the government’s plan for combatting air pollution in the UK “has been judged illegally poor at the high court.” It was the second such ruling in 18 months.

Diesel vehicles and their air polluting emissions are “among the big contributors to ill health and global warming.” This is according to Helena Molin Valdés, head of the United Nations’ climate and clean air coalition.

It's therefore essential that countries devise plans to get the oldest and most polluting diesels off our roads. One mechanism for this would be a scrappage scheme, where drivers are given cash to put towards alternatives to driving – like train season tickets or years of cycle hire fees – or electric or hybrid cars in exchange for scrapping their old diesel.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan proposed just such a scrappage scheme to get rid of London’s dirtiest cars.

What can you do to protect yourself and your children from air pollution?

We’ve already published a comprehensive guide on how to avoid air pollution from transport, and the advice is solid. I’ll break down the guidance here, as well as adding further advice from Defra, Asthma UK and the RCP.

  • Leave your car at home when you can: car drivers are exposed to more than twice as much air pollution as a person walking the same route.

  • When walking, stay back from the road edge.

  • When walking, cycling or running, avoid busy roads.

  • Stop idling in you car: turn off the engine while waiting.

  • Spend as much time in the green, open spaces of your city as possible.

  • Limit the time you spend outside on high pollution days.

  • Keep your car windows closed, especially if you’re stuck in slow-moving traffic.

  • Walk or jog earlier in the day, when air quality tends to be better.

  • Avoid rush hour if possible.

  • When outside pollution is bad, keep windows and doors closed so fumes can’t get in. But remember to keep your home well ventilated the rest of the time.
  • Defra produces daily and five-day UK pollution forecasts, so you can check your local area before you leave the house.

  • When air pollution is bad, be sure to check Defra's recommended actions and health advice

The Royal College of Physicians has created a six-step guide to breathing better air. It’s an acrostic, and unlike most acrostics this one seems pretty solid:

  • Be aware of the air quality where you live

  • Replace old gas appliances in your home

  • Ensure you have an energy efficient home

  • Alter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling

  • Talk to your MP

  • Harness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively   

That last suggestion about harnessing technology brings me to my final point.

Become a citizen scientist with Friends of the Earth's Clean Air Kit

You can become a sleuth in your own backyard and help our campaign for clean air by checking your local pollution levels using one of our Clean Air Kits.

In the kit you’ll find an air monitoring tube complete with easy to follow instructions. Once you're done, send the tube back to us and we'll get it analysed in a laboratory. We’ll email you the results along with guidance on what you can do with the findings, and tips for avoiding and reducing air pollution.

You don’t even need a lab-coat! Although we won’t judge you if you end up raiding your fancy dress box.