Exposure to air pollution restricts children’s lung development

Image of traffic in London city centre
15 Nov 2018

Children exposed to air pollution have poor lung health, putting them at risk of lifelong breathing disorders, new research suggests.

The study, published in Lancet Public Health, is a collaboration between researchers from both the MRC Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma and the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research.

Based on samples in London’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ), the research found that whilst traffic pollution control measures have helped to improve air quality in the area, lung problems persisted.

Evaluating Low Emission Zones (LEZ) 

Air pollution is a leading cause of health problems, including breathing disorders, asthma, and chest infections worldwide. Children are especially vulnerable to its effects.

LEZ – which restrict or penalise vehicle entry in urban areas – are an increasingly common intervention to tackle air pollution. London introduced the world’s largest city-wide emission zone in 2008 and Scotland’s first LEZ is set to come into effect on 31 December in Glasgow. However, until now, there has been little evidence of their impact.

No improvement to public health, despite better air quality

The research team - led by Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh - looked at children’s health and exposure to pollutants following the introduction of London’s LEZ.

The five-year study monitored more than 2000 eight and nine-year olds from 28 primary schools in areas of London with high air pollution, which fail to meet current EU nitrogen dioxide limits. 

Findings showed that children exposed to pollution were more likely to have small lungs, which was linked to higher levels of exposure to diesel emissions, including nitrogen dioxide.

Despite some improvements in air quality over time, there was no evidence of a reduction in the proportion of children with small lungs or asthma symptoms.

More ambitious efforts needed to reduce pollution

Experts say that efforts to reduce pollution in towns and cities need to be more ambitious in order to protect health.  

Professor Aziz Sheikh, Director of Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, who was involved in the study, said:

“Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death and disability in Scotland. This study provides further evidence that air pollution is affecting our children’s lung health development – with likely lifelong consequences. 

Our findings suggest that Low Emission Zones and related attempts to improve air quality will need to be ramped up in order for health benefits to be seen.”

Read the paper

Read the paper in full here

Cite as

Mudway IS, Dundas I, Wood HE, Marlin N, Jamaludin JB, Bremner SA, Cross L, Grieve A, Nanzer A, Barratt BM, Beevers S, Dajnak D, Fuller GW, Font A, Colligan G, Sheikh A, Walton R, Grigg J, Kelly FJ, Lee TH, Griffiths CJ. Impact of London's low emission zone on air quality and children's respiratory health: a sequential annual cross-sectional study. Lancet Public Health. 2018 Nov 14. pii: S2468-2667(18)30202-0. doi: 10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30202-0. [Epub ahead of print]

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