Of the 20 most polluted cities across the world, 10 happen to be in India. This means over eight million kids in the country are exposed to toxic air and potentially putting their brain development at risk. A Unicef report, Danger in the air: How air pollution can affect brain development in young children, has set the alarm bells ringing about high levels of pollution and its impact on brain development in kids and infants. The report adds that almost 17 million babies under the age of one live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits.
Creating awareness among all stakeholders to move toward green practices will help reducing pollution levels, shared Yasmin Ali Haque, Unicef Representative in India against the backdrop of the release of the Unicef report. It also noted that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development, with lifelong implications and setbacks. Even if a pregnant woman inhales toxic air, it might have an impact on her baby, she added.
Why are young children most vulnerable to the impact of air pollution? Young children’s immune systems are still developing, and their lungs are still growing. With every breath, children take in more air per unit of body weight than adults. By extension, when air is toxic, they take in more toxic air per unit of body weight than adults. Moreover, the impacts have ripple effects into other critical aspects of children’s lives. For example, when children get sick, they might miss school, further limiting their learning and development potential.
The Unicef report states that “healthy diets and lifestyles can help reduce the overall impact of air pollution on children. The healthier a child, the less likely that health complications arise as a result of exposure to air pollution. Moreover, a healthy child is more able to participate in activities that matter for his or her overall development, including going to school, playing and learning.”
The report also notes that we need to help families reduce their children’s exposure to air pollution. “This means reducing the time spent in areas where pollution is high, such as near or around areas of severe traffic congestion or sources of industrial pollution. Where possible, travelling during times of day when air pollution is lower can help reduce exposure. When air pollution is severe, it is best that children avoid strenuous activity, and playing or exercising in the harmful air should be minimised. This is specially the case if children have pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma or other respiratory infections. Use of effective air filtration masks can help in extreme conditions, provided they meet good filtration standards and fit a child’s face properly. Reducing exposure to air pollution must also include physical and structural changes to places where children live. This starts with smart urban planning.
Major pollution sources such as coal-fired power plants should not be built near schools, clinics, hospitals or anywhere they can cause harm to children. Renewable energy options would be cleaner alternatives to coal-fired power plants. Within buildings, improvements to ventilation and air filtration systems, particularly in classrooms, clinics, houses and in hospitals, can make indoor air pollution less harmful. Good quality childcare centres should have access to green spaces for children to play and learn.
Other indoor air pollutants should be avoided too. For example, reducing children’s exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke has long been known to reduce health risks. Other common sources of indoor contaminants include building and paint products, cleaning supplies and household chemicals. From these, contaminants such as asbestos, formaldehyde, lead and radon can possibly enter the air either directly or indirectly through, for example, sanding, moving, disposal, burning and other forms of disturbance. The more we understand what chemicals are in the products in and around our homes, and how they can be dangerous, the better we can protect ourselves and our children.”