Many of us are aware that air pollution is an issue. We’re used to seeing cyclists covering their nose and mouth as they navigate busy city streets, and restrictions are beginning to crop up that either restrict access for motorists, or to notify them that they will be charged extra for driving in specific zones.
We know that poor air quality is a problem, but away from the newspapers and lacklustre promises from politicians, do we really understand the full extent of it? Do we have a firm grasp on how air pollution affects our health, and the health of our most vulnerable loved ones, in particular, our children?
Foetuses & babies
“It is a worrying problem – there is a massive association between air pollution a mother breathes in and the effect it has on the foetus,”
– Dr Lisa Miyashita, at Queen Mary University of London
Enveloped in a warm bubble of amniotic fluid and carried by its mother, it’s hard to comprehend that unborn babies can be so at risk from toxic air. But the dirty truth of the UK’s air is that toxic pollutants inhaled by mothers are likely to be transmitted to unborn children.
Scientists have found direct evidence that toxic air travels through the mother’s body to the placenta where pollutants become lodged. Although scientists are unable to say for sure that the particles move across into the foetus, Dr Norrice Liu, part of the research team who carried out the study, confirmed that “We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby’s body to have an adverse effect, because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact on the foetus.”
So, what does toxic air mean for foetuses and babies?
A study published by the British Medical Journal in 2017, found that air pollution in London significantly increases the risk of low birth weight in babies, which can lead to a range of serious health issues later in life. Worryingly, the report concluded that there was no consistent or effective way for expectant mothers to avoid exposure to toxic air during their pregnancy, and instead it is the responsibility of the government to find an acceptable solution.
Exposure to toxic air during pregnancy has also been proven to significantly increase the risk of miscarriage. A recent study found that raised levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, which is commonplace around the world, increased the risk of losing a pregnancy by 16%. Disturbingly, exposure to NO2, caused by burning fuels, is ‘as bad as smoking in increasing risk of miscarriage’. A member of the research team, Dr Matthew Fuller, concluded: “If you compare that increase in risk to other studies on environmental effects on the foetus, it’s akin to tobacco smoke in first-trimester pregnancy loss.”
“Worryingly, one third of our children could be filling their lungs with toxic air that puts them at risk of serious, long-term health conditions”.
-Amy Gibbs, at Unicef UK
A study on the risks of air pollution for small children found that children are exposed to a third more air pollution than adults due to the diminutive height and closer proximity to vehicle exhausts. This is a worrying statistic, especially for the millions of children walking to school and playing in the playground every day.
However, it is not just outside that children are exposed to harmful pollutants. Research has shown that children are also at risk while inside nurseries and school buildings. The report on levels of air pollution indoors in London found that children are being exposed to higher levels of airborne pollutants inside their lessons than outside on the street or in the playground. Following the report, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a £1m fund to tackle the problem by providing 20 nurseries with air-quality audits and indoor air filters, but what about the tens of thousands of primary schools and nurseries across the UK?
Not only is the exposure of air pollution higher for children, but the risks for children are also significantly higher than for adults as they have a more rapid breathing rate and smaller, less-developed lungs. Exposure to air pollution during early childhood, a crucial developmental stage, has been linked to stunted lung growth, inhibited brain development and increase the risk of conditions such as asthma.
How else may air pollution affect your child’s health?
Diminished growth and development
- Exposure to high levels of air pollution have been linked to a slower rate of growth and development, which can have a damaging effect on the lungs and the way they function.
Exacerbation of existing conditions
- Prolonged or regular exposure to poor-quality air has also been shown to aggravate existing health conditions such as cystic fibrosis and asthma. If your child is asthmatic their symptoms can be triggered by air pollution which leaves them more at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack. ONS data showed that 17 children aged 14 and under died from asthma in 2017 in London, an increase from 13 in 2016.
Increased risk of developing mental health issues
- A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry Research identified links between exposure to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter and mental health issues in children living in London. Scientists found ‘a strong link between air pollution exposure levels at the age of 12 and mental health problems that presented when the children reached 18 years old’.
How can we protect them?
Our children are completely reliant on us to protect them against the devastating effects of air pollution. So, what can we do to help?
The issue of air pollution is vast and requires serious action from our government to save our children from its life-threatening effects. However, there are a few small changes you can make to protect your little ones:
Choose a different route to school
- Avoid busy routes with high volumes of traffic.
- On busy roads with high levels of exhaust emissions, carry your child so they are not at the same level as the vehicles.
Check air pollution levels in your area before you venture out
- Keep up to date with the air pollution levels near you with an air-pollution tracker. If the air quality is bad, consider going out at a different time, or choose a different route.
Invest in air-purifying devices
- Look at investing in an air-purifying device for within your home to reduce the levels of indoor air pollution your children are exposed to.
- There are also ways to reduce the exhaust emissions of your vehicle. The Sustainable Flow Engine Performance Optimiser is scientifically proven to reduce Nitric Oxide by 62.2% , Nitrogen Dioxide by 58.7%, NOx by 60.3% and Carbon Dioxide by 79%. Learn more.
As parents we need you to come together, speak up, push forward and raise awareness that the current levels of air pollution are completely unacceptable.
Join us in our mission for clean air, for everyone. Find out more about our technology and what we’re doing to tackle the air pollution epidemic.