Is your child breathing polluted air? Here’s what to watch out for

Is your child breathing polluted air? Here’s what to watch out for

Different pollutants affect every age group differently, but one of the most susceptible and vulnerable age groups that needs attention is children from 0 to 10 years of age.

By Dr Sanjay Wazir

Exposure to air pollution is an overlooked health problem for children across the world. According to the WHO, almost 93 per cent of all children in the world are exposed to the level of fine particulate material (PM 2.5) higher than the air quality guideline levels and the number is almost 99 per cent in the southeast Asia region.

Although air pollution affects people of all ages, children are specifically more at risk owing to number of factors. Their organs, especially the lungs and brains, are still developing and because their life expectancy is higher they are expected to have more damage due to prolonged exposure. Children tend to be physically more active and play outside with the result that the exposure is higher than adults. Also, because of their significant breathing rate they tend to inhale more pollutants as compared to adults.

Children are likely to be more vulnerable to exposure to air pollution compared to adults for the following reasons:

  • Their lungs are still growing and developing.
  • Their immune and metabolic systems are still developing.
  • They suffer from frequent respiratory infections.
  • They are more active outdoors than adults and therefore breathe in higher doses of outdoor pollutant.

One of the main sources of air pollution is “transportation” and smoking in cars with children. Smoking around children contributes to problems at a very young age. The major outdoor air pollutants are sulfur oxides, hydrocarbons, ozone, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides which are released through the various means of transport that we use, which contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular mortality (adults), increases in asthma and respiratory symptoms, and eye and throat irritation, especially in children. There is increasing evidence of air pollution being responsible for decreasing immunity and increasing incidence of childhood cancers. At the individual level, we must co-operate to reduce the carbon footprint in the form of avoiding burning of crackers during festivals or using carpool or public transport to reach work.

Tips to protect children from air pollution

  • Stay indoors.
  • Use air masks.
  • Avoid strenuous activity.
  • Keep indoors clean.
  • Use air purifiers.
  • Keep purifying plants.
  • Encourage people not to burn garbage around residential areas.
  • Windows and doors should be closed during peak hours of poor air quality.
  • Schools should enforce a no idling zone for buses and cars that drop of children.

Exposing children to environmental pollutants can lead to long-lasting health problems, such as asthma. It further leads to headaches, respiratory infections, eye, nose and throat irritation, allergic reactions and fatigue.

The challenge of air pollution is to be addressed on a war footing if we are to protect the health of children in coming generations. These measures have to be taken at the level of the individual and society. The degree of air pollution can change day to day and throughout the day. While exposure to air pollution cannot be entirely prevented, children can be protected by becoming aware of the air quality index and keeping them indoors when the value is high. This is especially important for children with respiratory problems and during strenuous activity. On days when the afternoons are expected to have worse air quality (ozone alerts), children should be kept indoors. Most states have specific rules for schools as they apply to outdoor activities and poor air quality. These activities should be rescheduled for times of the day when air quality is improved (morning or evening).

(The writer is Director, Neonatal Intensive care Unit, NICU, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Gurgaon.)

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