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Asthma Isn’t the Only Effect of Air Pollution on Kids. Their Brains Are at Risk Too.

Living near a busy road doesn't just hurt kids lungs, it has the potential to alter their brains as well.

Living near highways is significant threat to kids, a growing amount of research suggests — not because they could get hit by a car, but because they will get hit with all the toxins from the motor vehicle itself. Air pollution affects lung development in children and increases their risk for asthma, but now it’s becoming apparent that toxic particles don’t stay there. They travel through the body and into developing brains, causing cognitive problems scientists are only beginning to uncover. 

“We’ve known for a long time that air pollution has respiratory effects in young children. It affects lung development and increases the risk of asthma,” says Doug Brugge, Professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at UConnHealth. “What is new and getting increased attention is that there’s more evidence that air pollution affects cognitive development and cognitive decline in the elderly. That evidence has grown dramatically recently.”

When children inhale pollutants from cars, it enters their respiratory tract but can also travel through the olfactory nerve in the back of the nose directly to the brain. In other instances, small toxic particles pass through children’s lungs and the body, working their way into their tissues, and have the ability to enter their cells and cross other biological barriers that larger particles cannot. The implications of this are alarming, even if it’s unclear what these toxins are doing once in the body. What we do know is that these toxins are making their way into children’s nervous systems and the potential for harm is high.

One of the biggest alarm bells comes from a study of over 130,00o births, including 1,307 children later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, found a link between prenatal exposure to nitric oxide and autism risk. “There’s not enough evidence to be conclusive about the increased risk of developing autism,” says Brugge. “But there is enough to be concerned and to do more research.” 

Although the research indicates that pregnancy may be one critical window to consider, Brugge notes that focusing on other developmental stages of increased risk once children are born may not yield helpful interventions — especially since experts already know that air pollution poses a threat to all children. 

The immediate takeaways from the research are that schools, playgrounds, daycares, and any other facilities where large amounts of children regularly gather should be as far away from highways and as close to green spaces as possible, as a matter of policy. That is obvious, but the execution still can be difficult. This is all the more true when it comes to housing, especially lower-income housing. Most Americans are stuck living where they can afford to live, and for many children that means regularly inhaling air pollution on a regular basis. 

The takeaways for parents are, like the highways they live near, a bit hazy. Spending more time in parks and green spaces that are further away from highways makes sense, but only if you do not have to drive to get there. Still, Brugge does not think parents should panic over air pollution either, but put it in perspective with all the other dangers to their kids they worry about.  

“It should not be invisible, but only being concerned about air pollution would be extreme,” he says. 

Ultimately, air pollution is dangerous for everyone, but the more scientists learn about it impacts kids, the more people care about solving these problems. Brugge compares it to second-hand smoking decades ago. People knew it was bad, but once they learned it hurt children everyone did something about it. 

“The fact that grandma may have a heart attack due to air pollution doesn’t pull the heartstrings as much as junior developing asthma. But we care a lot about our kids and that is a positive.”