Unhealthy Air May Be Hurting Kids’ Brains: Commentary in AJPH Urges Air Pollution Policies to Protect Child Health
When children are exposed to air pollution, it can harm not just their lungs but the development of their brains, too. Exposure to air pollutants related to combustion, which come primarily from burning fossil fuels, is linked to autism, ADHD, memory deficits and lowered intelligence in children, among other outcomes.
More than two years ago, leading scientists, children’s health advocates, health providers and practitioners — including Devon Payne-Sturges, assistant professor with the Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health — formed Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks) to bring research closer to those working directly to improve children’s health.
As part of that effort to develop concrete solutions to environmental health threats facing children, Payne-Sturges led the group in publishing a commentary in the American Journal of Public Health this month that outlines specific policy recommendations for reducing children’s exposure to air pollutants.
The proposals start with actions at the federal level, including strengthening vehicle fuel efficiency standards and taking neurodevelopmental effects into account when determining the levels of air pollutants allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the group developed recommendations for state and local governments, too, which can be important avenues for progress under a presidential administration intent on rolling back federal health protections, Payne-Sturges said.
“When there’s no action at the federal level, that doesn’t mean states can’t act on their own,” Payne-Sturges said. “We wanted to give examples of what states can do in light of this growing evidence for the neurodevelopmental effects of pollution.”
The group’s advice for state and local governments includes restricting existing and future sources of combustion-related emissions, relying on renewable energy sources for public transportation and building electric vehicle charging stations and other infrastructure to help individuals reduce their personal pollution levels.
The authors also argue for prioritizing future research to further inform policies. In particular, they recommend expanding air quality monitoring, studying the health effects of airborne particulates on brain development and analyzing the effectiveness of different policy proposals.
The article notes that reducing exposure to air pollutants is important for all populations but particularly low-income and minority communities, who are more likely to live close to highways and other sources of pollution, and Payne-Sturges’ research at Maryland focuses on assessing health risks from environmental contaminants, particularly as they affect vulnerable populations.
“These conditions can have incredible costs not only to children and families but to society as a whole,” Payne-Sturges said. “If we can equip ourselves with information on how to prevent these issues, we should do so.”
The article, “Healthy Air, Healthy Brains: Advancing Air Pollution Policy to Protect Children's Health,” was published online on February 21 in the American Journal of Public Health.