Air pollution makes our kids dumber and sicker

Printer-friendly version

Two recent studies suggest that air pollution at levels common in urban areas causes children to have higher rates of a potentially fatal lung infection and reduces the IQ levels of the kids exposed most heavily in the womb.

All this happens at air-pollution levels common in urban areas. 

The finding about the dumber kids exposed in the womb comes out of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environ­mental Health in New York City, where scientists equipped expectant mothers to wear air-pollution monitors as they went about their daily routine.

One finding, outlined in Scientific American this week and much earlier on a site called babycenter.com: Pregnant women who experienced the highest exposures to pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons had children with IQ scores four points lower on average than kids born to less-exposed mothers. SciAm's Sunny Sea Gold's story says there's more from another study:

Children’s growing brains are not the only ones affected by this dirty air. A 2008 study in 20- to 50-year-olds conducted jointly by the schools of public health at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pinpointed ozone-related reductions in attention, short-term memory and reaction times equivalent to up to 3.5 to five years of age-related decline.

Meanwhile, here in Rain City, MSNBC and Discovery News bring us the tale of  University of Washington researcher Catherine Karr, who just released a study stating that ongoing exposures to air pollution increases a baby's chances of coming down with a lung infection called bronchiolitis. That turns out to be the most common cause of hospitalization of kids under 1 year old.

Where traffic, wood smoke and industrial pollution were heaviest, kids were 5 percent to 10 percent more likely to hospitalized for bronchiolitis, which is basically a swelling and blocking of the tiny pathways that deliver air into the lungs.

Karr had previously documented this effect in Los Angeles. Her latest study, in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, examined the same phenomenon in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. Emily Sohn's story on the work says it's surprising this finding came "in the Pacific Northwest, which is known for its clean air and green living."

Well, we got news for her. Especially in southern Seattle, the combination of heavy diesel-truck use of highways, wood smoke and a concentration of industrial facilities boosts cancer rates, as we reported last year. If you live near a major thoroughfare, you're probably getting more air pollution that you'd like. Proximity to heavy traffic is what you want to avoid.

(We've also previously encountered Catherine Karr. Earlier this year, in a story that starts off talking about climate refugees, we noted her work showing that deaths from heat waves are expected to roughly double in Seattle over the next half-century as a result of hotter summer heat waves.)

-- Robert McCluire