Air Pollution and Kids Health: 6 ways to protect

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If I were to tell you that your unborn child or honey bunch toddler is bound to grow up with a low IQ (an impact of pollution on kids), you would probably vent your ire on me in ways better left unsaid. But what if I were to now tell you that I have this juice from the custodian of the world’s health itself—the WHO—and more so support my claims with statistics and studies—startling, isn’t it! But regrettably that is exactly what air pollution is doing to our children.

Effects of Air Pollution on Children’s Health

India’s toxic air quality has been linked to the premature deaths of close to 1,10,000 deaths of children in 2016, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report states (Air Pollution and child health: Prescribing clean air). The effects are more pronounced for the younger children, especially under the age of five years accounting for about 1,00,000 of the total child deaths. The report further states that the effect of pollution on kids is not just in the current generation but has far reaching consequences on yet-to-be-born generation with poor birth outcomes, infant mortality, adverse effects on neurodevelopment (a critical outcome), weight issues, respiratory effects (Asthma and TB are common outcomes) and cancer

A WHO report–Air Pollution and Child Health–emphatically and categorically concludes that air pollution impacts children in ‘uniquely damaging ways.’ 

But like with all bad news, it just doesn’t end here. Another WHO report dismally revealed that 14 out of 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India and the chances of you or me staying in one of these 14 are quite likely. So, in a nutshell, given that we can’t live without air, and given that we live in a polluted environment, the future of our kids’ health looks bleak!

But where to place the blame!

Exactly where it belongs. On air pollution or to be more precise on particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). These particles enter through the lungs but are so fine, a fraction of the thickness of human hair that they can penetrate into the bloodstream and lead to various health concerns. And since children are most vulnerable—they inhale more air per unit of body weight as compared to adults,  are more active, their lungs are still developing, their bodies are less able to metabolise, detoxify, and excrete the toxicants—addressing it becomes more pertinent. But till the time we are able to clean up the air, we can attempt to protect our kids from its pandemic damaging consequences. Here’s a few ideas:

3 ways to protect our children from outdoor air pollution:

  1. Think about how you can reduce your kid’s exposure to vehicular pollution. Avoid busy roads, take quieter streets with less traffic, step back from the road if you see a heavily polluting vehicle approaching, and lift a baby or young child in your arms on a busy street, so they are not at the same height as exhaust emissions.
  2. Check air pollution levels: If your city has a AQI (Air Quality Index) monitoring station, before stepping outdoors, check it out. Stay indoors if the data is unpleasant. Limit early morning or late evening sojourns since those are the times when the air is heavily polluted.
  3. Control indoor air pollution as well by airing your house, especially the kitchen, limiting air fresheners or fume-emitting paints and polishes, and definitely, not smoking.

But kids will be kids…

You can not ask them to stay at home all the time. Therefore, practicing some habits can help in reducing the harmful effects of pollution. 

How to protect kids’ health from air pollution:

  1. Once indoors, get your child to rinse her nose and mouth, and wash eyes to not let pollution particles go deeper inside their systems. 
  2. Give them steam inhalation routinely since it washes the allergens and particles wedged inside the nasal passages.
  3. Jal neti or nasal irrigation is a very tried and tested method to limit the damage of air pollution for older children.
  4. Focus on their health so that the symptoms of pollution—runny nose, allergy attacks, wheezing—etc can be controlled.
  5. Make your children practise breathing exercises to strengthen their respiratory system.
  6. If there are accessible green spaces in your city—reserved green belts—take your kids there for outdoor activity and play time.

Masks and Air purifiers:

The jury seems to be out on this one! While a few experts believe that these physical barriers are effective in limiting exposure to air pollution, others believe them to be more of a marketing gimmick. Dr Rajiv Chabbra, senior pediatrician, Gurgaon, says that while the data on air pollution may be real, “The impact it has on kids’ health is mostly extrapolation.” He for that matter never recommends these to any of his patients.

Dr Vivek Nangia, Interventional Pulmonologist with Fortis, Delhi in one of his sessions for parents, said that if you can breathe clean air for a few hours—for eg: using an air purifier during the night—then you should take advantage of it.

As a bottomline the impact of air pollution on a child’s health will be a case by case incidence. If you believe that there are some visible and immediate consequences of this on your kid, it is best to consult her regular paediatrician who has the child’s medical history and will be able to spot any anomalies.

Till then, the most important way to protect our children from air pollution is to go green: less consumerism, community work to plant more trees, reduce wastage should be some parenting mantras.

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