Children and Respiratory Health

Joanne Sprung

Doctors see children for respiratory problems more often than any other chronic health issue. According to staff at the well-known Mayo Clinic, the lungs undergo major growth between the ages of 10 and 18 and exposure to air pollution during this time may limit lung development.

Several studies have shown that children living in neighbourhoods with higher levels of air pollution had much poorer lung function than children from communities with cleaner air.

In recent years, studies at the University of Southern California have found that kids living near busy roadways are more likely to develop asthma and other breathing disorders. A research team at the University also found that genes may impact our response to air pollution. One gene seems to protect against the harmful effects of ozone, but sadly up to 40 percent of the population doesn’t have a functioning copy of this gene so they are susceptible to the damage the ozone can do to the lungs.

The specific pollutants that have been linked to lung problems include nitrogen dioxide, acid vapor, and elemental carbon. All of these are products of fuel combustion.

For some families, finding ways to avoid air pollution can become a challenge. Limiting outdoor play, including sports, and even keeping kids home from school has been an unfortunate, but necessary step for some parents.

It is not uncommon for large cities like Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles to have air quality alerts in the summer months. The Air Quality Index or AQI tells us the health affects we may experience a few days or a few hours after breathing in polluted air.

Air quality alerts are directed at the general public, but the elderly and those with asthma are the most vulnerable. Asthmacauses the airways to become blocked or narrow making it very difficult to breathe. Close to 4 million Canadian children suffer from Asthma. When treated quickly and properly Asthma sufferers can go about their daily lives; however, according to the Asthma Society of Canada, 250 Canadians die due to this lung problem every year. Pollution can be especially hard on those who have been diagnosed with chronic asthma.

In China, where pollution levels are notoriously high, many women and children have started wearing fashion facemasks to avoid inhaling toxic fumes. Here in North America the masks have not caught on, but residents continue to push for new tools and technology that will clear the way so that kids won’t have to miss out on outdoor activity.

Researchers involved in what is known as the “Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development” study or CHILD for short, say asthma has increased 50 percent every 10 years for the past 40 years and they point the finger at the environment. The scientists have been tracking 3,500 kids living in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Toronto in an effort to understand why so many people are developing asthma and allergies. It has been suggested that the multi-year study will have a direct impact on prevention strategies for environmental exposures regulations and policies.

Until change is implemented, imagine your airways are tightening; they are inflamed or are filled with mucus- you are gasping for air. That’s asthma, and that’s what so many kids face every day!