The cooler winter air helps us all breathe a bit easier: Literally. Smog (air pollution) is more common in the warm and humid months and less likely to smudge the air when cooler temperatures prevail.
Smog can affect how you feel now and your health in the future. And those who represent the future–children–are the most vulnerable to its harmful effects. Research from a comprehensive 10-year study shows that common air pollutants slow children’s lung development over time.
Although we may not feel the effects of air pollution, its effect on the population as a whole and especially in children is nonetheless significant, says W. James Gauderman, PhD, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) and the study’s co-author.
“I think it is not serious in an acute way, meaning that children are not going to start falling down gasping. But the size of the effects that we are seeing is large enough that there is some source for concern,” says Gauderman.
His study found a 10% decrease in lung function in children living in more polluted areas compared to children in less polluted areas.
Reduced Air Flow
Lung function is a measure of your lung volume and how much air flows into and out of your lungs. It’s a measure of your capacity, and ability, to take in and let out air.
Lung function increases during childhood and levels off in young adulthood. Around age 30, it begins a lifelong decline. Anything that blocks lung function growth at an early age can cause problems down the line.
Many people track cholesterol or blood sugar levels, but few actually check lung function levels. Nonetheless, it is an important factor in computing life expectancy.
“We know that in adults, if they have lower-than-average lung function, they will die earlier,” says John Peters, MD, DSc, USC professor of preventive medicine, and study co-author. “The assumptions are–we don’t have the data–that the same thing will happen to children.” And that is not good news for the long term.
“Children in high-pollution areas will hit a lung function plateau that is lower because they have been exposed to air pollution. They have a lower starting point from which their lungs will decline–as all do–from age 30 on,” says Gauderman. That lower starting point could be increasing the likelihood and/or severity of disease.
The Exercise Dilemma
Exercise is essential to help children achieve maximum lung capacity. In bad air, however, it could do more harm than good.
“When we looked at children who report spending more time outdoors, we saw more detrimental effects,” Dr. Peters says. “It is consistent with the idea that these children are outside breathing more of the [polluted] air.”
“Don’t exercise during periods of peak pollution,” advises Dr. Peters.
Knowing when air quality is good or bad may be a challenge for some parents in deciding whether or not to let their children play outside. Some cities, including Los Angeles, report pollution levels in the weather section of the newspaper.
If your city does not do this, then Dr. Peters suggests judging by eye. If you see a brown haze, that could be a sign of poor air quality and a signal to limit your child’s activities outdoors.
Other factors affecting air quality include heat, humidity, and stagnant air.
Fossil Fuels Create Smog
There are also some obvious physical factors that may determine air quality such as living close to a major expressway or industrial site. Both technologies burn fossil fuels, a major contributor of many of the pollutants listed below.
The four major culprits include:
- Ozone–a highly reactive gas that in the past has been most consistently linked with health problems. Ozone is the culprit for what Gauderman calls “acute health effects”: watery eyes, tightness in the chest, and coughing at night.
- Nitrogen dioxide–a brownish haze pollutant that comes from auto emissions, factories, and even gas stoves.
- Particulate matter–a broad term for many kinds of very small fragments. It includes dust from a field or unpaved road, little bits of tire rubber, and particles that are from auto exhaust. The smaller the particle, the deeper it can invade your lung.
- Acid–In hot and humid conditions, chemicals from auto exhaust take moisture, heat, and nitrogen products from the air to form damaging acid.
Dr. Peters and Gauderman are following study participants carefully to understand how relocation, genetics, and nutrition play a role in repairing smog’s damage.
“We don’t want to scare parents into thinking they need to move,” Gauderman says. “The old advice is to try to minimize exercise on these high-pollution days.” What we really have to do, he adds, “is to continue to try to reduce levels of air pollutions through tighter emission controls, cleaner-burning fuels, and more efficient cars.”
Article By: Kimberly Nelson, Medical Writer