We do know how pollution can impact the health of a baby or a young child negatively. What should also worry us is how some research shows a possible correlation on how pollution can have a long term impact on a child’s developing brain. There is apparently some correlation from being exposed to high levels of pollution at the critical stage when the child is developing, both in utero and post birth during the early years and brain development that parents should be aware of according to some research.

According to a report, “A new UNICEF paper warns that 17 million babies across the world are breathing toxic air, putting their brain development at risk. More than three-quarters of these young children – 12 million – live in South Asia.”

The paper stated that air pollution coupled with inadequate nutrition and stimulation in the vitally important first 1,000 days of life can have a long term effect on developing brains.

To quote directly from the report:

  • “Ultrafine pollution particles are so small that they can enter the bloodstream, travel to the brain, and damage the blood-brain barrier, which can cause neuroinflammation.
  • Some pollution particles, such as ultrafine magnetite, can enter the body through the olfactory nerve and the gut, and, due to their magnetic charge, create oxidative stress – which is known to cause neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Other types of pollution particles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can damage areas in the brain that are critical in helping neurons communicate, the foundation for children’s learning and development.
  • A young child’s brain is especially vulnerable because it can be damaged by a smaller dosage of toxic chemicals, compared to an adult’s brain. Children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe more rapidly and also because their physical defenses and immunities are not fully developed.”

Consequently, it stands to reason that when our children are exposed to toxic air levels on a daily basis this is bound to impact their cognitive development in some way. Unfortunately, one could not track down any India based research studies to check this correlation between pollution and brain development in our country, but there are global studies which we can look at for additional information for this possible impact on children’s cognitive development.

According to studies, children who are living in and attending schools where traffic-related pollution is high have consistently performed worse on cognitive tests.

What does early exposure to air pollutants do? According to reports, it can possibly have a negative effect on neurodevelopment, resulting in “lower cognitive test outcomes and the development of behavioral disorders such as autism spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders,” according to WHO researchers. Both prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution can threaten neurodevelopment in children. According to studies, children who are living in and attending schools where traffic-related pollution is high have consistently performed worse on cognitive tests. A study of 783 kids in Netherlands found that exposure to PM 2.5 caused “Structural alterations to the cerebral cortex” when the kids reached between ages six to 10. Interestingly, this area in the brain, the cerebral cortex is responsible for impulse control, and any “alteration” to this area can consequently impact focus and attention, and consequently educational scores.

Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health conducted a study on prenatal exposure to air pollutants and found that it could possibly have an impact on cognitive development in childhood. According to the study, children who had been exposed in utero to high levels of PAHs would score 6.3% lower on cognitive tests than children who hadn’t been exposed in utero.

These findings are of concern because compromised mental performance in the preschool years is an important precursor of subsequent educational performance deficits. – Prof. Frederica Perera

What are PAHs?

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals found naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline and are also formed when coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, and tobacco are burned. These form particles in the air. Air which has vehicle exhaust, fumes from asphalt roads, industrial emissions, wood smoke, etc can lead to PAH exposure. PAHs can get swallowed, breathed in, or absorbed through the skin. The body converts them into metabolites that get excreted through urine and stools.

A pregnant woman breathing in this air polluted by PAHs can transfer it to the fetus through the placenta. According to Prof. Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health, “These findings are of concern because compromised mental performance in the preschool years is an important precursor of subsequent educational performance deficits.” Her study is one of the components of a multi-year research study called The Mothers and Children Study in New York City, initiated in 1998. The study looked at a sample size of 183 children in the Bronx, Central Harlem and Washington Heights, which are considered some of the most polluted areas in New York, and measured air pollution exposure during pregnancy, and then subsequently testing the children at age three with standardized tests on mental and psychomotor development.

A pregnant woman breathing in this air polluted by PAHs can transfer it to the fetus through the placenta.

Yet another research study funded by Public Health England and published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research has put forward that British children with intellectual disabilities are more likely than their peers to live in areas with high outdoor air pollution.

In a city like Mumbai, pollution is chronic across seasons, given vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions. Says Ashwini Vaishampayan OTD, Director, Early Childhood Development and Disability Programs, Ummeed Child Development Center, “The Early Childhood development and disability (ECDD) team at Ummeed Child Development Center runs programs on promoting and monitoring early childhood development (0-3 years of age) in various low resource communities in Western India. We have run programs in urban slum pockets of Ghatkopar and Mankhurd in Mumbai, urban slum areas around Pune and rural areas near Vadodara in Gujarat. As part of our work, we use a standardized tool in monitoring ECD and some of the highest numbers of children with delays and disabilities (24%) have been identified from the Mankhurd – M East ward project. This is in comparison with 11-13% from similar projects in other low resource areas in Mumbai and other locations.” Mankhurd, as one might surmise, is amongst the worst polluted spots in the city.

In the sense, maybe in winters, Delhi is very polluted and it has a huge impact on children who are not able to breathe well due to respiratory illnesses which would, of course, impact the functioning of the brain. But maybe, as the pollution recedes (hopefully) the children’s brains stars functioning adequately again. – Dr Shelja Sen

There are, as mentioned before, no India specific studies to refer to. Psychologist Dr Shelja Sen says, “As a psychologist, I do think that pollution would impact the cognitive ability but I think it is a temporary impact and can be reversed. In the sense, maybe in winters, Delhi is very polluted and it has a huge impact on children who are not able to breathe well due to respiratory illnesses which would, of course, impact the functioning of the brain. But maybe, as the pollution recedes (hopefully) the children’s brains stars functioning adequately again. However, that might be my optimistic thinking as the thought is too frightening!”

What are the steps that neighborhoods, communities, municipalities and governments can take to reduce this negative impact of pollution on children’s growing brains in their infancy. To start with, at the home level reduce the child’s exposure to harmful fumes like second-hand smoke from cigarettes and tobacco products, wood stoves and wooden fireplaces. At the community, municipality level, we need to look at options to reduce air pollution by advocating and promoting the use of renewable or cleaner energy sources, promoting public transport and making it more accessible and convenient, investing in creating green spaces within cities, come down strictly on factories and industries that violate emission levels. Urban planning needs to keep in mind that schools and educational institutions must be near residential areas to avoid long exposure to pollutants through travel, and that air polluting sources are not given permission to be set up near residential areas. Air filtration masks should be subsidized and made available on priority for young children. Parents also must be educated about the need to improve children’s resilience and immunity through exclusive breastfeeding in the early months and good nutrition.

Also Read: How Air Pollution Is Giving Our Kids Skin Problems Too

Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

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