The air we breathe is teeming with pollutants”Love is in the air. Love and pollution.” -Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is InvisibleSomeone up there wanted us to have nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), argon (0.9%), carbon dioxide (0.03%), water vapour and trace gases such as neon, helium, krypton and xenon. We,The air we breathe is teeming with pollutants”Love is in the air. Love and pollution.” -Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is InvisibleSomeone up there wanted us to have nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), argon (0.9%), carbon dioxide (0.03%), water vapour and trace gases such as neon, helium, krypton and xenon. We spoilt it all by adding harmful gases, particles and odours to the atmosphere. These pollutants have come from stationary sources such as coal combustion for power production, oil refineries and industrial manufacturing facilities (sulphur oxides, sand and dust particles), and also from vehicular exhausts that comprise nitrogen oxides and other ozone precursors, particulate matter and carbon monoxide in addition to toxic organic compounds including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and benzene.Children are most vulnerable to pollution because their lungs, brains and immune systems are immature at birth and mature rapidly till the age of six. The cell layer lining the respiratory tract is quite permeable during this period and the airways are narrow making them vulnerable to pollution-borne diseases. In addition, children tend to spend more time outdoors pursuing vigorous activities such as sports, which make them breathe more outdoor air compared to adults, who spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors on an average. Children also tend to breathe more through their mouths than through their noses due to their increased physical exertion, thus reducing the effectiveness of one level of filtration.The respiratory rates for children are also greater than that of adults making them breathe a proportionately higher volume of air than grown-ups. As a result, the young inhale more pollutants per kg of body weight. Moreover, because of young children’s height and play habits (crawling, rolling) they are more likely to be exposed to pollutants or aerosols that are heavier than air and tend to concentrate in their breathing zone near ground, which may result in significant obstruction in their airways.advertisementDr Jagjit Singh BatraThese days, children are at risk posed by air pollutants even before they are born. The time between conception and birth is perhaps one of the most vulnerable life stages. Exposure of a pregnant woman to air pollutants can lead to premature births, low birth weight and even birth defects. Consequently, such babies are far more likely to die in infancy, and those who survive have high risks of brain, respiratory and digestive problems in early life. One study reports that mothers exposed to air pollution are twice more likely to give birth to a child with autism. Foetuses exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) emitted chiefly from vehicular exhausts exhibit more behavioural problems when born. These children often suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) between 8 and 9 years of age. Increased exposure to air pollutants in children worsens asthma along with long-term health effects such as atopy.The air pollutants that clog our atmosphere are so dangerous that even short-term exposure can result in injury to the lungs at the cellular level. Sulphuric acid hinders the clearance of mucus and ozone affects immunity levels that hamper the body’s ability to fight infections. Ozone and the acidic aerosols also cause persistent inflammation of the respiratory tract. Children who are exposed to tobacco smoke or vehicular emissions may be at a higher risk of obesity too. That’s not all. Children exposed to air particulate matter and their metal components that can travel through the blood-brain barrier are at greater risk of brain inflammation and neuro-degenerative changes, including Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. In other words, the safety of our children, and our collective future rests on curbing the harmful effects of air pollution. There is no time to be wasted.Dr Jagjit Singh Batra is a Delhi-based paediatricianTo read more, get your copy of India Today here.