How Air Pollution Affects Children’s Health

Air pollution affects all of us, including children. In recent years, more research has been done on how air pollution affects children’s health and the results are scary.

In fact, the WHO recently published a 172 page paper on the damaging effects air pollution has on children. They started the paper by saying:

“The evidence is clear: air pollution has a devastating impact on children’s health.”


How Many Children Are Affected By Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a problem everywhere. A recent WHO study shows 93% of children globally live in environments with air pollution levels over the recommended guidelines. Even the other 7% of children are still impacted by pollution. 

In fact, we recently discussed why the WHO air pollution guidelines are actually not safe and how low levels of pollution can have the biggest health consequences. 

Children all around the world are affected by air pollution
Note: Even children in the green areas can be seriously affected by the local air pollution

Children Are More Vulnerable to Air Pollution Than Adults

Air pollution is everywhere and affects everyone of all ages. But children are in many ways the most at risk when it comes to air pollution’s negative health effects.

Here’s why:

  • Their organs (heart, lungs, etc) are still developing
  • They breathe faster than adults, resulting in breathing in more pollutants
  • They may spend more time outside playing, exposing them to poor outdoor air quality levels
  • children spend much time near their mothers while the latter cook with polluting fuels and devices.
  • Children have a longer life expectancy than adults, so latent disease mechanisms have more time to emerge and affect their health

Air Pollution Affects Children Before Birth

Even while a baby is still in the womb, pollution can affect it’s health. In fact, there is a strong link between exposure to certain pollutants and birth defects (especially PM, SO2, NOx, O3 and CO).

Pollution in filter, not baby


In particular, studies show exposure to dangerous particulate matter (PM) increases odds of premature birth and low birth weight. There is also evidence that pollution increases the odds of stillbirth and the birth of small for gestational age (SGA) babies

Read More: Air Pollution Affects Fertility and Newborn Baby Health

Air Pollution’s Effects on Children’s Health

Air pollution is one of the largest threats to a child’s health. In fact, air pollution accounts for 1 in 10 deaths in children under five years old.

Infant mortality. As pollution levels increase, as does the odds of infant mortality, particularly from exposure to PM and toxic gases.


Neurodevelopment. Recent research suggests pollution may damage children’s cognitive abilities. Pollution may also influence the development of a variety of behavioral diseases in children, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Childhood obesity. Studies have shown a possible link between pollution and childhood obesity. The WHO suggested air pollution increases the risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, heart diseases, and some cancers, which may affect body weight. Pollution may also reduce a child’s metabolism, leading to weight gain.

Air Pollution Affect's Metabolism, Causes Weight Gain

Lung function. Children who grow up in more polluted environments are more likely to experience reduced lung growth. This study showed a strong correlation and was even done in California, which has relatively better air quality than much of the world.

Air pollution reduces lung growth in children


ALRI, including pneumonia. Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI) such as pneumonia in children.

Asthma. Exposure to pollution increases a child’s risk of developing asthma, and can exacerbate the symptoms of those with asthma.

Childhood cancers. There is substantial evidence that exposure to traffic-related air pollution is associated with increased risk of childhood leukaemia. Several studies have found associations between prenatal exposure to AAP and higher risk of retinoblastomas and leukaemia in children.

Air pollution can cause cancer in children


Bottom Line: How Does Air Pollution Affect Children?

Children are most at risk from the negative effects of air pollution. These effects include increased odds of: birth defects, infant mortality, neurodevelopment issues, obesity, lung growth issues, pneumonia, asthma, and cancers. Unfortunately, the list goes on and nearly every child in the world faces air pollution levels that can be destructive to their health.

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