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Air Pollution and Children's health

Much is said and discussed about air pollution and its effects on climate of the planet. While there are many activities of mankind that are creating havoc on the climate, air pollution is by far the worst because of its unlimited and long-lasting effect. And the crisis has become life-threatening in the last couple of centuries because of industrialization and increased consumption of fuel world over. The causes may be manmade but the effects are surfacing as acute health complications in all species on earth. Nations all over the world have realized the graveness of the situation and are taking desperate corrective measures and it has been understood that this issue needs synchronization of efforts from all the communities. Some of the most common visible effects of air pollution are listed below:-

• Global Warming – Significant increase in the average temperature of earth leading to extreme weather changes on earth.
• Acute health problems- Respiratory and skin diseases due to harmful gases.
• Negative effect on flora and fauna due to imbalance of air constituents.
• Effects on cultural heritage- Harmful gases react with stone and metals and cause damage to the structure.

             The list of negative effects is endless but the underlying statement is that there is an irreversible damage happening to the ecosystem. One of the most threatening effects of air pollution is the impact on children’s health and development. Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in number of children suffering from severe health disorders owing to increased levels of pollution in the atmosphere.

Air Pollution- Causes and Components

Air is combination of complex combination of many chemical components, the most prominent ones being Nitrogen, Oxygen and water vapor. There are certain pollutants which enter the atmosphere due to natural phenomena such as eruption of volcanoes and decomposition of plants and animals. However, the pollutants created as a result of human activities called the anthropogenic pollutants, are harmful and beyond natures sustainable limits. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, methane, ozone, tobacco smoke, lead and suspended particulate matter i.e. dust, smoke, sand, mist, pollen and fly ash are emitted as a result of industrial and household activities .Burning fossil fuels such as coal and using or emitting toxic gases as by-product are categorized as industrial activities. Vehicle exhausts, chemical pollutants released from household cleaners, adhesives, paints, disinfectants, pesticides, AC exhausts, burning fossil fuels, CFCs found in aerosol cans and refrigerator units and tobacco smoke are some of the very common household pollutants. Prima facie these industrial or domestic activities may not seem harmful but the cumulative effect on the environment is now causing havoc. Some of the deadliest evidences of effect of air pollution on humanity are listed below :-

• Ozone hole due to excessive use of CFCs spotted over Antarctica in 1980.
• London smog of 1952 which was smoke due to excessive burning of coal trapped in fog lasted for four days and claimed almost 12,000 lives .
• Los Angeles, California ranks highest in ozone and particulate pollution and has had 69 unhealthy smog days in 2010. Smog is a created when smoke is trapped in fog due to tall buildings or high mountains. All human beings suffer directly or indirectly due to pollutants in the atmosphere but extent of effect on children is much more than on adults.

Air Pollution-Effects on children’s health and development

Air pollution has ill effects on both adults and children but children are more susceptible to the harmful effects because of many reasons such as their anatomy, metabolic rate and tolerance levels. According to report by WHO (2005), the ongoing process of lung growth and development, incomplete metabolic systems, immature host defenses, high rates of infection by respiratory pathogens and activity patterns specific to children can lead to higher exposure to air pollution and higher doses of pollutants reaching the lungs. For example, children have higher activity levels than an adult and spend more time playing outside and hence are more exposed to the pollutants in the atmosphere. At any exertion level, children inhale more air per unit body weight than adults. Also, children are not able to recognize the early signs of impact and hence are unable to take preventive measures or are treated at a much later stage. The effects can be a minor irritation to severe lung diseases and cancers. In some cases, presence of persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals in the air has evidenced direct effect on development of nervous system and behavioral pattern. Studies have also proven the effect of air pollutants on prenatal period and infants. Examples and evidences of direct relationship of certain pollutants on children’s heath are stated below:-

• Ozone is known to cause nose, throat and eye irritation, headaches, chest pains and difficulty in breathing. It exacerbates asthma and repeated exposure to ozone can lead to chronic lungs malfunction.
• Carbon monoxide- main component of automotive exhaust- increases the risk of low weight of babies at birth. It can cause permanent damage to vital organs such as heart.
• Exposure to lead can impair the body’s ability to make hemoglobin and cause anemia. It is also known to trigger kidney damage and harm the central nervous system.

     The ill effects of air pollutants have been acknowledged significantly and desperate measures are being taken not only to cure the damage but also prevent the situation from worsening further.

Sociological Aspects

Most of the components of air pollution are the results of human activities. Urbanization and industrialization are the major factors leading to increased levels of air pollution. Population growth and density i.e. people per sq km is another contributor. A steady increase in the levels of pollutants in the air has been observed after the industrial revolution. There is an ongoing debate about the contribution of developed and developing countries. While India, China and Iran top in the list of most polluted cities of the developing countries; London, New York and California feature in list of smog covered cities in the developed countries. Lack of knowledge about the potential effects of air pollution, lack of infrastructure, use of outdated automotives and excessive use of fossil fuels for cooking and heating are the prominent reasons of high pollution levels in developing countries. On the other hand, high densities of population, use of hazardous chemicals in households and mega factories have done irreversible damage to the atmosphere. In spite of the ongoing argument about the culprit for this damage, the countries have realized that the ill-effects of air pollution are not delimited to the place of origin but will have a global effect and there are synchronized efforts globally to prevent any further damage.

• Kyoto protocol- Kyoto protocol brought into force in February 2005 by the UN commits 37 industrialized countries and European community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has strict reporting and compliance system to ensure that the commitments are met. However, Kyoto protocol assumed that developed countries had major contribution in air pollution and did not include the role of developing countries
• Greenpeace International- Greenpeace, a global environmental organization with its head office as Amsterdam, actively works in 40 countries to spread knowledge about harmful effects of pollution due to various activities and helps provide solutions such as renewable sources of energy with an aim to a cleaner climate
• Laws and regulations – Governments are taking stringent measures to curb air pollution by industries and vehicle emissions. The Clean Air Act, 1973 of USA and the Environment Act, 1995 in UK enforce limits of pollutants entering the atmosphere. Similar laws are being enforced by countries all over the world to control air pollution at local levels. Steps for a Cleaner tomorrow Successes of all efforts for a cleaner atmosphere in future are driven by two factors – act now and act together. It is to be clearly understood that the efforts cannot be delayed at any cost and that people have to think and act together beyond geographical, cultural and economic boundaries.
• Use of alternate sources of energy- Innovative ways of using renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and water need to be adopted religiously at domestic and commercial level instead of fossil fuels such as coal which are the major culprits of air pollution.
• Industries should invest in primarily in setting up processing units to clean up toxic pollutants before they enter the atmosphere.
• Population should be educated exhaustively about the ill effects of air pollution on the next generation.

    Nature has been magnanimous enough to sustain the human population in spite of the damage done to it. However, it has reached its break-even. Man has disturbed the nature’s self-cleaning mechanism and the effects are now visible as extreme weather conditions, unseasonal storms and other natural calamities. Until and unless the situation is arrested immediately, the next generations may not be able to survive in the deteriorated conditions.

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