Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cleaner Air, healthier kids

By Gary Palcisko, toxicologist, and Camille St. Onge, communication manager, Air Quality Program

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that improvements in air quality were associated with improved lung function among children.

The study followed three separate groups of children from age 11 to 15. The first group was followed
starting in 1994, the second in 1997, and the final in 2007. Between 1994 and 2011, levels of air pollution declined in many areas of southern California.

Children that grew up in the later years of the study, when air quality was better, had improved lung function compared to the children who grew up  when air quality was poorer. Children exposed to less air pollution have improved lung function so are likely to have healthier lungs as adults.

Our lungs develop and grow until early adulthood. Then lung function begins to decline gradually as
Chart I
we naturally age. There is concern about impaired lung growth because if it is stunted during childhood, the lungs never reach their full potential. This reduced lung function is likely to persist throughout life. The red line in the chart illustrates decreased lung function early in life and over a lifetime.

Washington’s air quality has improved

While the study focused on improved air quality and children growing up in southern California, Washington’s air quality has also improved during the last few decades.

In the late 1980s, several areas of Washington did not meet federal clean air standards. This meant that many people were exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution.

Through a combination of efforts, air quality has gradually improved. Air quality regulations are better; thousands of high-polluting wood stoves have been replaced with cleaner technology; we have
cleaner vehicles and fuels, and as a result our air is cleaner.

However, even with more stringent standards, more work needs to be done. Today, 14 areas of Washington are vulnerable to violating federal air standards.

Our future and air pollution

While air quality has improved, poor air quality still threatens the health of Washingtonians. Hundreds of studies show that air pollution causes serious harm, even at levels below federal safety standards. This means that there are still public health benefits to be gained by further improving air quality.

The challenge for the future will be to continue to improve air quality in the face of new threats stemming from population growth in Washington and climate change. While we prepare to face these threats, we also need to consider the future of children who are growing up in Washington today. For example, about
Chart II
110,000 (7 percent) children and youth currently have asthma. Although air pollution is only one of many factors that contribute to asthma, cleaner air likely means less suffering for these children. By continuing to work toward cleaner air, we can take another step toward helping children achieve their full potential. 

Chart I adapted from Weiss, Scott T. “Lung function and airway diseases”, Nature Genetics 42, 14-16. Chart II provided by the Washington State Department of Health. 

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