New research shows that pollution stunts lung growth in children

lung disease in children

The first six months after birth are crucial for lung growth in children. As their air sacs (alveoli) rapidly develop, they lay the foundations for oxygen delivery later in life. The science community is confident that lung growth in children takes place until the age of three. However, it moves at a slower pace. Although more research is needed to confirm future changes, there’s a strong likelihood that it continues throughout childhood.

According to researchers analyzing children from London, those who live in urbanized areas are disadvantaged. The study has found that those growing up in areas where high levels of diesel are present have a lower lung capacity than those who don’t.

How does living in a polluted area affect lung growth in children?

The study was carried out on children aged between eight and nine from 28 kindergartens across London. It took place after the British government introduced measures to reduce vehicle-related diesel pollution in the city. The researchers were hoping to find that such measures aided lung growth in children, despite them living in an urbanized area.

Instead, what they found was that those analyzed had a reduced lung capacity. Compared to children from areas that aren’t as polluted, their lung capacity was 5% lower. It’s worth noting that despite the government’s attempts to reduce diesel exposure, levels remain illegally high throughout the city. Although the research took place in the UK, cities worldwide experience similar pollution levels. Some are worse.

According to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and San Jose are among the most polluted cities in America. Although the world’s most polluted cities are primarily in India, China, and the Middle East, children in developed nations aren’t protected against dangerous levels of diesel.

How does diesel pollution affect lung development?

Research into diesel pollution and lung growth in children is still ongoing. However, we do know that when vehicles use diesel, they release particulate matter emissions into the air. These emissions are so small you can’t see them with the human eye, but they’re abrasive as far as lungs are concerned. Adults who experience high exposure to particulate matter emissions will also suffer from reduced lung capacity.

When small particles enter the lungs and execute their abrasive effects, they can cause lasting damage to some of the cells there. Unlike the cells on your skin, those that make up your lungs aren’t that tough. They can regenerate, to an extent, but repeated exposure to a harmful substance can cause something called fibrosis. When this occurs, even on a small level, it leads to a reduction in lung capacity.

What are the effects of having a lower lung capacity?

We already understand what the effects of a reduced lung capacity are, as it’s common to see a reduction as you get older. They include:

  • Reduced endurance, which affects your ability to participate in sports
  • Decreased stamina, resulting in fatigue
  • More respiratory infections, which can become fatal in some circumstances

While all the above are accepted as par for the course in members of the elderly population, it’s hard to accept them as being acceptable in children. Essentially, with a 5% reduction in lung capacity, those who grow up in polluted areas are at a disadvantage. The knock-on effects of being more tired, less able to engage in fitness, and having more infections can impact social and academic development too.

Like all studies, the conclusion as this one leads us to one simple question: how do we resolve this issue? It’s too easy to suggest that those who have children should leave urban areas. It is, however, easy to suggest that we start taking sensible measures toward reducing diesel emissions.

Such measures could include using public transport more, opting for cleaner forms of fuel, and walking wherever possible. On a larger scale, shopping at local stores and avoiding unnecessary journeys is also helpful. At a grassroots level, small and collective contributions could aid the development of society’s most vulnerable members.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.