The effects of air quality on children's health are wide-ranging and long-lasting: Air pollution has been shown to worsen chronic diseases such as
asthma, and it is also associated with preterm births, abnormal lung and neurodevelopment, pediatric
cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease risk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics details the harms of air pollution and provides recommendations for lessening its impact on children in a policy statement, "Ambient Air Pollution: Health Hazards to Children," in the June 2021 issue of Pediatrics. It draws on considerably expanded research since its last statement in 2004.
Why children are more sensitive to air pollution
"We know that infants and children are uniquely sensitive to air pollution because their bodies are developing. They also breathe in more air in relation to their body weight than adults do," said Heather L. Brumberg, MD, MPH, FAAP, co-lead author of the statement by the AAP Council on Environmental Health.
"We have seen that in 'natural experiments'—where efforts to decrease traffic during the 1996 and 2008 Olympics, for instance—both air quality and resultant community health improved. We must continue to more consciously work toward improving air quality."
Common sources of air pollution include emissions from traffic, coal-fired power plants, older, inefficient wood burning stoves, agricultural production, and
forest fires. Combustion processes increase not only toxic air pollutants but also create greenhouse gases, underscoring the relationship of air pollution and
climate change. The pollutants contained in emissions can influence development of children's organs from the fetal period through early, middle, and late childhood, according to the statement.
"Children living in poverty and in neighborhoods near industrial plants or other sources of local pollution face higher exposures and risk," said Catherine J. Karr, MD, PhD, FAAP, co-lead author of the report. "National data continues to show Black, Hispanic and Asian children are disproportionately affected."
The AAP recommends that pediatricians:
Recognize air quality concerns and resources in their practice area and for individual patients.
Serve as role models by
walking, cycling or using other alternative transportation to gasoline-powered motor vehicles.
Use the Air Quality Index as a tool in helping educate families of potential protective behaviors.
Advocate for reversing rollbacks of emissions limits from coal, gas, and oil industries.
Advocate for 100% renewable energy.
Promote school and child care siting policies that reduce exposure to air contaminants from traffic or other nearby sources of pollution.
"Air quality is something we take for granted. We don't always realize how much it affects our health, climate and thus the life of the planet," Dr. Brumberg said. "Pediatricians can help make changes, small and big, with education and advocacy on behalf of children."