Clearing the Air for Our Kids
Air pollution is often accepted as part of life in urban areas. But new studies have shown that our complacency could come at the expense of our health. And we need to do more if we want to avoid an increasingly smoggy future.
Results of a long-term study on the effects of air pollution on children's health were recently published in the pre-eminent medical journal The New England Journal of Medicine. This Children's Health Study is the largest ever of its kind, examining the cumulative exposure effect of various pollutants on more than 1,700 children from 12 southern California communities over eight years.
The authors found that "exposure to ambient air pollution is correlated with significant deficits in respiratory growth over an eight-year period, leading to clinically important deficits in lung function at the age of 18 years." In other words, air pollution can damage the developing lungs of children, which can reduce their lung function as adults.
The authors also confirmed something reported by several other studies. For some pollutants, like fine particles called "particulates," the exposure-response relationship appears to be linear, with no "safe" levels of exposure. So whenever even the smallest amounts of these pollutants were found in the air, there were corresponding health effects found in children.
These results should tell us that we need to do more to clean up our air.
Yet, often when I bring up the topic of air pollution, a few people pop up and claim that urban air is much cleaner than it was 50 years ago. Or that air in urban North America is much cleaner than it is in urban China or India. This is true. Our cities don't generally suffer from "pea soup" smogs like London did in the 1950s, which killed thousands of people. And cities in developing countries can suffer from terrible air pollution.
But these comments miss the point. Yes, we are lucky to live in the developed world, but why would that stop us from reducing what is apparently a health risk in our own countries, just because it may not be as visible? And the only reason why those pea soup smogs cleared up in the first place was because of government intervention and clean-air laws.
The fact is, improving our air in the future, or even keeping it the same quality as it is today, will take substantial effort. A growing population, a constant stream of new untested chemicals and an ever-increasing number of motor vehicles on our streets means that air pollution is on the rise again.
Even in Europe, where laws are more strict than in North America, air pollution is proving difficult to reduce. Recent reports have found that increased road traffic will likely prevent the U.K. from meeting its pollution-reduction goals for 2010. This has experts concerned, since climate change is also expected to make air pollution worse, as higher temperatures and more sunlight lead to greater smog formation.
In North America, where lax fuel-efficiency regulations and a proliferation of sport utility vehicles is the norm, air pollution will also increase unless steps are taken at a government level. Promised voluntary improvements by the auto industry have not simply not materialized.
But cars aren't the only culprit. Coal-fired electrical power plants are another major source of air pollution that need to be phased out.
Last year, when a major blackout hit a large portion of eastern North America, more than 100 power plants shut down and the air cleared up. In some areas of Pennsylvania, visibility increased by up to 40 kilometers. Levels of the pollutant ozone also fell by up to 50 percent, while sulphur dioxide levels fell by up to 90 percent. Replacing these old powerplants with clean-energy alternatives would go a long way toward improving air quality and our health.
Air pollution in major cities of the developed world may have improved from the "bad old days," but that's no reason to be complacent. Clearly, our smoggy air is still hurting our health especially that of our children. And that's not something we should simply accept.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org The David Suzuki Foundation.