Nearly 17 million infants live in areas where air pollution is six times higher than international limits, forcing them to breathe toxic air and putting their brain development at risk.
A statement issued by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Thursday to highlight findings of a recent research study said that 12 million of these children lived in South Asian countries.
In Danger in the Air: How Air Pollution can affect Brain Development in Young Children, UNICEF researchers have noted that breathing in particulate matter can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development with lifelong implications and setbacks.
Read more: Is Breathing Killing Us?
“Not only do pollutants harm babies’ developing lungs, they can permanently damage their developing brains and, thus, their futures,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Protecting children from air pollution not only benefits them, but also benefits their societies. Social benefits are realized in the form of reduced healthcare costs, increased productivity and a safer, cleaner environment for everyone.”
Satellite imagery analysed in the study has revealed that South Asia has the largest proportion of babies living in the worst-affected areas, with 12.2 million babies residing where outdoor air pollution exceeds six times international limit set by the World Health Organization. The East Asia and Pacific region is home to some 4.3 million babies living in areas that exceed the limit.
The paper shows that air pollution, like inadequate nutrition and stimulation, and exposure to violence during the critical first 1,000 days of life, can impact early childhood development by affecting brain growth.
Ultrafine pollution particles are so small that they can enter the bloodstream, travel to the brain, and damage the blood-brain barrier, which can cause neuro-inflammation. Some pollution particles, such as ultrafine magnetite, can enter the body through the olfactory nerve and the gut, and, due to their magnetic charge, create oxidative stress – which is known to cause neurodegenerative diseases.
Other types of pollution particles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can damage areas in the brain that are critical in helping neurons communicate, the foundation for children’s learning and development.
A young child’s brain is especially vulnerable because it can be damaged by a smaller dosage of toxic chemicals, compared to an adult’s brain. Children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe more rapidly and also because their physical defences and immunities are not fully developed.
The paper outlines urgent steps to reduce the impact of air pollution on babies’ growing brains, including immediate steps parents can take to reduce children’s exposure in the home to harmful fumes produced by tobacco products, cook stoves and heating fires:
- Reduce air pollution by investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion; provide affordable access to public transport; increase green spaces in urban areas; and provide better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals.
- Reduce children’s exposure to pollutants by making it feasible for children to travel during times of the day when air pollution is lower; provide appropriately fitting air filtration masks in extreme cases; and create smart urban planning so that major sources of pollution are not located near schools, clinics or hospitals.
- Improve children’s overall health to improve their resilience. This includes prevention and treatment of pneumonia, as well as promotion of exclusive breastfeeding and good nutrition.
- Improve knowledge and monitoring of air pollution. Reducing children’s exposure to pollutants and the sources of air pollution begins with understanding the quality of air they are breathing in the first place.
“No child should have to breathe dangerously polluted air – and no society can afford to ignore air pollution,” said Lake.