Air Pollution Stunts Children’s Lung Growth, Raises Risk of Early Death

November 15, 2018 Updated: November 15, 2018

British researchers are sounding the alarm on diesel-linked air pollution, claiming it is stunting the growth of children’s lungs and placing them at risk of severe asthma attacks, lung disease, and early death.

The new study based in London also found that even when steps were taken to successfully improve air quality, the changes were not enough to reduce the damage in children’s lungs.

The scientists, which hail from Queen Mary University of London, King’s College, and the University of Edinburgh, monitored over 2,000 children from 28 primary schools in areas of London affected by pollution.

They found that as the levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) in the air grew, lung capacity in children fell.

Youngsters living in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Greenwich, and the City of London—all areas that fail to meet current EU limits for NO₂ concentration—suffered a lung capacity reduction of five percent.

The research was published in the public health section of the medical journal The Lancet.

Stunted Lung Capacity

Professor Chris Griffiths from Queen Mary told The Telegraph that “despite air quality improvements in London, this study shows that diesel-dominated air pollution in cities is damaging lung development in children, putting them at risk of lung disease in adult life and early death.”

He added that “we are raising a generation of children reaching adulthood with stunted lung capacity.”

Griffiths blamed the government for not doing enough to limit traffic in urban areas.

“This reflects a car industry that has deceived the consumer and central government, which continues to fail to act decisively to ensure towns and cities cut traffic,” he said, according to The Telegraph.

The new study also found that the number of children living in areas where pollution exceeded the EU limit had fallen from 99 percent to 34 percent since London implemented Low Emission Zones in 2008.

Children’s lung capacity did not improve, however. This is believed to be largely because children are exposed to most pollution in schools, which are often located next to busy roads, according to The Guardian.

Samantha Walker, at Asthma UK, said: “It is disappointing that the LEZ in London has not helped to improve children’s lung capacity and shows that a piecemeal approach to reducing air pollution does not work.”

London is to introduce an ultra Low Emission Zone next year, which will require vehicles to meet even more strict emissions rules.

Hazards of Diesel Emissions

Both petrol and diesel engines produce harmful gases in the form of nitrogen oxides (NOₓ), which include the toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N₂O) and nitric oxide (NO). Diesel engines, however, produce about 30 percent more nitrogen oxides than catalytic converter fitted petrol-powered cars, according to The Conversation.

Long-term exposure to nitric oxide can significantly increase the risk of respiratory problems, the report indicates, and the fine particulate matter that diesel engines produce has also been linked to cancer.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by British consumer group ‘Which?’ found that nearly 80 percent of new diesel cars still pollute beyond legal limits, according to The Independent.

The World Health Organization says air pollution causes 7 million early deaths every year, and 90 percent of children around the world breathe unsafe air.

“The health effects of air pollution are serious–one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease are due to air pollution,” the WHO says. “This is an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.”

Growing children are particularly vulnerable to toxic air. According to The Guardian, previous research has linked air pollution to low birth weights, cot deaths, obesity, and mental health problems.

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