Air pollution is harmful to everyone – the young, adult, elderly and even – no especially –the unborn.

In later life pollution exacerbates existing conditions and can cause or contribute to a worryingly long list of health problems, but the story gets worse the younger you are.

The development of children’s bodies, and especially their lungs and brains, is slowed down through exposure to both particulate and gaseous pollutants.  Reduced development early on results in a chain reaction, causing life-long health issues far more extensive than often believed.  It’s now understood that effects include mental health problems – up to four times the chance of developing depression at 18 and a greater risk of antisocial behaviour, paranoia and even suicide.  Indeed higher levels of air pollution are thought to be twice as likely to lead to depression than a history of abuse.

Research published in Psychiatry Research suggests that pollution crosses the blood/brain barrier and causes inflammation in the brain and a permanent reduction in intelligence.  Longer term this may result in dementia as well as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and COPD.

With developing lungs children suffer more respiratory infections and are more exposed to airborne pollutants as their high activity rates lead to higher respiratory rates. 80% of the alveoli in the lungs, that allow the transfer of oxygen to the blood, develop after birth and the lungs do not fully mature until adulthood.  On the positive side,findings show that reducing pollution during childhood can reduce the long-term effects.

Most at risk are unborn children.  Developing foetuses share a blood supply with their mothers and pollution inside the mother readily passes into the baby, significantly affecting all areas of development.  Perhaps of greatest concern are the increased risks of a premature birth, reduced birth weight – known to have lifetime adverse health consequences, and the certain but un-quantified impact upon the developing brain.

Reducing and avoiding your children’s exposure to air pollution is a vital step for every parent and the best time to take positive and decisive action is the moment you discover you’re expecting. Or, even better, before. A few months of pollution avoided in the womb might avoid decades of ill-health later on.

unicef has launched a campaign to persuade the Government to commit to targets to reduce air pollution to levels set by the World Health Organisation, to create a coordinated action campaign across all government departments for reducing children's exposure, and to set up a fund to enable Local Authorities to make changes. Details can be found here.

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