Exposure to urban air pollution weakens kid’s lungs

Your lungs continue to develop well after you are born usually until the age of 3 but maybe even into your late teens. This means that any exposure to harmful compounds (cigarette smoke, pollution, toxic fumes) could likely have profound impacts on the way your lungs grow. Alterations in the way your lungs grow could lead to the development of asthma or increase the likelihood that you develop COPD later in life. To determine if your lungs are functioning normally, a doctor can perform what is known as a pulmonary function test (PFT) or spirometry. This test allows them to measure how fast you can exhale air out of your lungs or how much air you can exhale out of your lungs and gives them an idea of blockages or narrowing in your airways, or scarring/damage to the lung tissue.

Pollution is a growing problem in our modern world with millions of deaths each year attributed to it. We are beginning to understand how exposure to pollution affects diseases like heart attacks, strokes, COPD, asthma, and cancer. Air pollution is a major health problem that affects everyone. Recently, a group of researchers out of Boston set out to understand how exposure to even low levels of air pollution might affect the ability of a child’s lungs to function normally.

The researchers recruited 614 children born between 1999 and 2002 and then measured how far away their houses were from a main roadway and also monitored the level of pollutants in the air around their house. They recorded all this information for 7 years and then had the children come back in for a pulmonary function tests. The researchers tested if there was an association between exposure to pollution and two variables:

  • FVC or forced vital capacity – this is how much air you can forcibly squeeze out of your lungs when exhaling. Exhaling less air than normal means you can’t get as much air into your lungs as someone with a normal FVC value. This could indicate scarring or damage in the lungs.
  • FEV1 or forced expiratory volume in 1 second – this is a measure of how much air you can forcibly squeeze out of your lungs in 1 second and is an indication of how easily air leaves your lungs. If your value is less than normal it could indicate that your airways are narrowed.

When the researchers measured those two variables in these children, they saw that kids who lived less than 100m (328 feet) away from a street had a lower FVC than those kids who lived more than 400m (1312 feet) away. Specifically, kids living close to a road could exhale 99mL less air from their lungs. Also, as the amount of particulate matter and soot a child was exposed to in the last year of the study rose, so did their lung function fall. For every small increase in particulate matter (the solid stuff in pollution), a child’s FVC decreased by 21mL and they were more likely to have a lower FEV1. For each small increase in soot exposure, a child’s FVC decreased by 39mL.

This paper highlights how even small exposures to air pollution can affect the developing lung of a child. Interestingly, the population represented in this paper had a high income, high level of education in the mothers, and a low smoking rate which suggests that they are likely living a healthier life. The fact that the authors still saw an effect in this well-off population means that in some of the more vulnerable populations of the world the effects could be even more profound. We still don’t know if the rise in pollution is to blame for the rise in lung diseases like asthma but this paper suggests that we still have much to learn about the impacts of pollution on the youngest in our population.

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