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World Earth Day 2018: Expert lays down signs that your child is affected by air pollution

Persistent exposure reduces the children's lung function and capacity, not only during childhood but also well into adulthood.

Written by Editorial Team |Published : April 22, 2018 9:23 AM IST

Air pollution as we know is a presence of harmful or excessive quantities of gases, particulates, and biological molecules. It is a significant risk factor for a number of pollution-related diseases and health conditions including respiratory infections, heart disease, COPD, stroke and lung cancer. These effects can result in increased medication use, increased doctor or emergency room visits, more hospital admissions and premature death. The most common sources of air pollution include particulates, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. . It has to be taken seriously as almost 92% of the world population lives in areas where air quality is below the WHO standards. In fact, in 2014, as per WHO data, all over the world, around 7 million people died due to pollution.

It has been seen that children are more susceptible to pollution than adults. This is because of following reasons:

  1. Children's immune system and lungs are under developed when exposure begins, raising the possibility of different responses than seen in adults.
  2. Children spend more time outdoors, so exposure is high.
  3. Children breathe in more air per kilogram of their body weight than adults. This means that they are more exposed to air pollutants than us adults
  4. Children's breathing rate is faster than adults. This means that they take in more environmental toxins and at a faster rate

As expected, air pollutants have many adverse health impacts to children including their development. Here are some of the most important effects of air pollution:

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  1. Persistent exposure reduces the children's lung function and capacity, not only during childhood, but also well into adulthood.
  2. Slower the growth and development of lungs.
  3. There is also higher chances of lung infection.
  4. Chronic conditions like asthma and cystic fibrosis worsen when affected children are exposed to air pollutants.
  5. Air pollution not just impacts the respiratory system, it can also impact the nervous system. Exposure to heavy metals in the air, such as lead, can impact the cognitive development of children.
  6. Increased mortality in children and adults. Sudden infant death syndrome is also been associated with exposure to air pollutants.
  7. Air pollutants have been associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight, intrauterine growth retardation, abnormal birth length, abnormal head circumference and small size for gestational age.
  8. There is a significant association between prenatal exposure to pollutants like carbon monoxide, O3 and birth defects.
  9. It is also associated with several acute and chronic adverse respiratory health effects in both asthmaticand non-asthmaticchildren. Asthmatic children shows more adverse effects like increase symptoms, increased asthma medication use, increased asthma emergency department visits and increased hospitalization due to asthma. Also the incidence and prevalence of childhood asthma also increase in areas with high pollution.
  10. Both short-term and long-term exposure to ambient air pollution may contribute to illness-related school absenteeism.
  11. It has also been shown to cause alteration in the immune system in children.
  12. In the tropics, children who live in regions with higher levels of ambient air pollution have been shown to be at increased risk of developing vitamin D-deficiency rickets compared with those residing in less polluted areas.
  13. Children aged less than five years that live in developing countries are the most vulnerable population in terms of total deaths attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
  14. In general, air pollution affects the overall health of children and can interact with other problem-causing factors, such as food, and viruses and can worsen the negative impacts of each other.

Signs that air pollution is affecting the child :

  1. Onset of or increase in cough and breathlessness.
  2. Unable to play or run as other children do and decrease in overall performance.
  3. Decrease in overall development and growth of the child or not increasing as per standards.
  4. Recurrent throat or chest infections.
  5. Decrease cognitive development.
  6. In child with asthma, worsening of asthma symptoms, increase emergency department visits and hospitalization.

Tips to reduce the effect of air pollution on children's health

At Home:

  1. Avoid smoking at home
  2. Use chimneys, smoke hoods and cooking windows to reduce smoke in house.
  3. Allow child to do good exercise to build lung capacity and have stronger lung and cardiac health. This will decrease the effect of air pollution on health.
  4. Ensure proper nutrition. Consume fruits rich in vitamin C, magnesium and foods rich in Omega fatty acids.
  5. Use air conditioning when you feel that air quality is low outside
  6. Air purifying plants such as aloe vera, ivy and spider plant can be placed at home.
  7. Air purifiers may be used especially if someone has difficult to control asthma and causing lots of adverse symptoms and consequences.

At Outdoors:

  1. Pollution levels vary with time. Understand this variation to plan your outdoor activities. For instance, mornings and evenings in winter are worse because of the deadly combination of smoke and fog. Traffic-related pollution is high during peak hours
  2. Medical grade mask like N95 or others can be used for outdoors especially when pollution level is high.
  3. Even school needs to be closed when the air pollution levels are very high.

In India, especially in metros and in our capital, air pollution is increasing at alarming levels. It becomes problematic and hazardous during winters as the levels becomes high and along with fog, forms the deadly smog which has greater adverse consequences. Therefore we need to be aware of air pollution and its effects on children. Overall significant morbidity and mortality in children is attributed to ambient air pollution and this also adds to high economic cost to society and the country. Further studies are needed to improve our understanding of air pollution on the health of children to aide policy-makers in decisions that relate to the sustainability of development.

By Dr Vikas Maurya, Sr. Consultant & Head, Department of Pulmonology & Sleep Disorders Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi

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