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Pollution is killing the young lungs: Doctors

PUBLISHED ON OCT 31, 2019 11:25 PM IST

New Delhi: It is the young lungs, especially under five years of age, that suffer the maximum damage when air pollution levels peak, say doctors.

For children, the risk really begins very early — right from the womb and continues through till early childhood.

“Long-term, recurrent exposure to pollution is linked to underdeveloped lungs in children, low birth weight, heart diseases, stroke, and now, studies show associations of pollution with reduced cognitive abilities as well,” Dr BK Tripathi, professor of medicine, Safdarjung hospital, said.

A report on child health and air pollution, released by the World Health Organisation last year, said, “Air pollution has a devastating impact on children’s health.” Globally, 93% of all children live in environments with air pollution levels above the WHO guidelines.

Short-term impact

The exposure to air pollution leads to immediate breathing difficulties, respiratory symptoms, and irritation of the eye.

“Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable — whatever symptoms people are experiencing, they are more pronounced in them. In my clinic, people who already have existing conditions such as asthma and COPD are coming with exacerbated symptoms,” Dr Sandeep Nayyar, head of the department of respiratory medicine, allergy and sleep disorders, BL Kapur Super Speciality Hospital, said.

“There may not be enough research to establish a direct link, but when pollution is at its peak, children who already have minor breathing issues get aggravated symptoms that don’t allow them proper sleep at night. Such children will be dull and cranky the next day. Lack of sleep over a period of time can lead to altered moods and memory issues,” Dr Manvir Bhatia, sleep medicine expert, said.

Doctors usually advise parents to ensure that their child stays indoors when pollution levels are high but mental health experts say it can also affect the psyche of a child.

“Parents should ensure that the child remains occupied with fun indoor activities to prevent them from having mood issues and becoming irritable,” Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor, psychiatry department, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, said.

The WHO report stated that children are uniquely vulnerable to air pollution — they breathe faster than adults inhaling more pollutants, they live closer to the ground where pollution levels are concentrated, and they spend more time outdoors.

Long-term impacts

Repeated exposure can lead to children developing asthma and other allergic respiratory symptoms later in life.

“There are studies that show that in children, exposure to high pollution levels can lead to them developing chronic respiratory conditions,” Dr Arup Basu, senior consultant, department of chest medicine at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, said.

“The allergic symptoms irritate the mucous membrane lining the airway and damage it. Recurrence of the symptoms leads to scarring and irreversible damage of the lining and results in the narrowing of the airway, putting children at risk of developing chronic respiratory conditions,” Dr Tripathi said.

The traffic-related air pollution study published in Lancet Planetary Health journal shows that with 350,000 new asthma cases related to exposure to NO2, India has the second-highest burden of childhood asthma cases attributable to pollution.

Exposure of an expectant mother to high levels of air pollution during the last trimester is linked to the stunting of growth of the child, found a study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

An increase of 100 μ g/m3 in the ambient PM2.5 level during the birth month were associated with a decrease of 0.05 in the height-for-age of the child. This means that a five-year-old girl would be 0.24 cm shorter than average.

The highest decline was noted in children born between November and January, when the pollution in the country is at the peak.

Another research from China shows that long-term, as well as transient exposure to air pollution, can lead to children scoring lower in verbal and maths tests, suggesting a decline in cognitive functions.

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