The damage air pollution can inflict on the lungs has long been known. Much of this damage isn’t thought to be permanent as long as the person isn’t continually exposed to the pollution. A new study focusing on children, however, has found that air pollution affects their lungs’ development, an effect that may last a lifetime.
A group of scientists supported in part by NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences studied 3,035 children in grades four, seven and ten in twelve communities around Los Angeles, California. They looked at the children’s medical histories, where they lived, and how much time they spent outdoors. The children were tested annually for their lung function, a measure of how much air their lungs could exhale. Then these results were compared to air pollution data collected in the twelve communities. This study is still ongoing, and will last for a total of 10 years; the scientists eventually hope to see how exposure to air pollution during childhood affects lung function in adulthood.
Over the four years covered in this report, the lung function growth rate of children in the most polluted community was about 10 percent lower than that of children in the least polluted community. Adding to the evidence that the effect was caused by outdoor air pollution was the observation that the children who spent more time outdoors suffered the most harm. Ozone, an outdoor air pollutant already known to cause other lung problems, did not appear to be involved. Slower lung function growth was correlated with nitrogen dioxide, airborne microscopic particles, and acid vapor. These pollutants all come either directly or indirectly from the burning of fossil fuels, such as in a car engine or an industrial plant.
The researchers could not pin the blame on any single pollutant in the study. Indeed, there may be pollutants they didn’t measure that are also contributing to the effect. Whatever the culprits may be, Dr. W. James Gauderman, one of the authors of the study, argues, “Our results indicate that continued reduction of air pollution, through the efforts of both regulators and the public, will lead to improved health in our children.”
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