How does air pollution affect children's lungs?

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is the name given to harmful particles or gases in the air we breathe. Air pollution is not just in the air we breathe outside; it can also affect the quality of the air we breathe indoors.

What causes air pollution?

In towns and cities, the main source of air pollution is traffic. The air you breathe indoors can be affected by how you heat your home, chemicals you use for cleaning, building materials, damp and mould, and cannabis, vape or tobacco smoke.

Even when you’re in your car, you and your children can breathe in polluted air – from traffic fumes, petrol vapour, tobacco smoke, and chemicals. In fact, air pollution levels can often be higher inside your car than outside.

How does air pollution affect unborn babies?

Being exposed to air pollution in the womb can affect a baby’s lung development.

If your baby is exposed to a lot of air pollution, it can also lead to premature birth and low birth weight.

It’s not easy to completely avoid air pollution while pregnant, but there are things you can do to reduce the amount of air pollution you breathe in.

Why is air pollution especially harmful to babies and young children?

Children are more vulnerable to breathing in polluted air than adults because their airways are smaller and still developing. They also breathe more rapidly than adults, meaning they take in more polluted air.

Children can also be vulnerable to air pollution because they’re normally closer to the ground or at face level with car exhausts and cigarettes – whether that’s walking or in a pram or buggy.

If your child breathes in high levels of air pollution over a long period of time, they might be at risk of:

  • their lungs not working as well as they grow older
  • developing asthma during childhood or as an adult - and if they have asthma already, air pollution can make it worse
  • wheezing
  • coughs
  • lung cancer when they’re older
  • infections like pneumonia.

Air pollution in your area

In 2019, we found that over a quarter of schools and colleges in the UK were in areas where toxic air pollution is over the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended guidelines.

Find out about the quality of air in your area

How can I reduce the risks of air pollution on my child?

Air pollution can be very worrying. If you live in a big city, it may not be practical or suitable for you to move away. But there are some simple steps that parents can take to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution:

  • avoid smoking during pregnancy
  • make sure your child does not breathe in cigarette smoke after they are born, by giving up smoking yourself and avoiding smoky environments
  • walk rather than drive if possible. On busy streets, exposure to air pollution can be worse inside the car than it is outside
  • find out where your local pollution hotspots are and if you’re walking or cycling, avoid the worst pollution by taking quieter streets - even walking on the side of the pavement furthest from the road and avoiding the busiest times can help
  • keep your home well aired by opening windows when pollution outside is at a lower level - you can check the forecast for air pollution levels where you are
  • cut down your exposure to household chemicals or try chemical-free and allergy friendly products.

Next: Early risks to your child's lungs

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