Air pollution is a major environmental health threat to human health especially children. In 2016, globally it was responsible for 4.2 million premature deaths with nearly 300,000 of these being children under the age of 5 years old. Air pollution-related mortality costs the Australian economy an estimated $16 billion per year. Globally, this number increases to US$ 5 trillion in total welfare losses.
In its recent report that is based on a scoping review of relevant studies from the past 10 years, as well as input from dozens of health experts, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that air pollution has a vast and long-lasting effects on children’s health and survival. It also shows how many children air pollution affects - globally, 93% of the population under 18 years of age is exposed to the air pollution levels above the WHO guidelines, Australia included.
According to WHO, children are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, especially during fetal development and in their earliest years of life. Children and pregnant women inhale faster, taking in more air, together with more pollutants if those are present in the air. Children also typically inhale through their mouths, so the nasal filtration mechanism is often bypassed allowing to move more pollutants into their lungs and other organs. Any fine particles are known to move faster through children’s respiratory system, allowing them to reach the lungs, the alveoli and the bloodstream more rapidly. Finally, children also spend more time outdoors engaging in physical activity in a potentially polluted environment and live closer to the ground where some pollutants reach peak concentrations. All that makes air pollutants especially threatening for younger and unborn children and might seriously impact their organs’ development. Exposure to air pollution early in life is also believed to increase child’s future risk of disease and lead to lifelong consequences.
How does air pollution affect children’s health?
So, what exactly does air pollution do to children? The above-mentioned WHO report says that air pollutants threaten children’s health in numerous ways. There is strong evidence that maternal exposure to certain pollutants leads to low birth weight and also increases the risk of preterm birth. More and more research studies are finding links between outdoor air pollution and infant’s mortality. Another number of studies suggest that both prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution can negatively influence children’s neurodevelopment and even lead to such behavioural disorders as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children’s lungs suffer greatly from the air pollution: there is robust evidence that it damages lungs function even at lower levels of exposure. Prenatal exposure was also found to be dangerous and is associated with impairment of lung development and function in childhood. Numerous studies have also found a connection between air pollutants and acute lower respiratory infections (including pneumonia) in children. Another danger for children’s health - as many research studies report - is asthma including the risk of developing asthma and exacerbating childhood asthma as a result of exposure to air pollutants. Finally, childhood obesity and childhood cancers were also mentioned in multiple studies as a consequence of air pollution.
Air pollution in Australia. The new normal?
Australia’s clear air standard of PM2.5 level of 8 micrograms per cubic metre might be a thing of the past. Bushfire season 2019/2020 changed everything we were used to leaving us to adjust to something that is perhaps our new normal. This season some of the Australian major cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra - experienced the worst air quality they have ever seen. In Sydney, on some days Air Quality Index (AQI) readings were reaching 734 micrograms - the equivalent of smoking 37 cigarettes a day. Melbourne and Canberra were not left behind with registered air quality worse than in China and India on some days. As a result, the demand for air pollution protective masks and home air purifiers has skyrocketed with many online and offline retailers quickly running out of stock. As if it was not enough, some parts of the country had to cope with massive dust storms, and according to WHO, those also negatively influence human’s health.
Both bushfires and dust storms pollute air with PM2.5 - atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair. Due to their tiny size PM particles are able to easily penetrate deeper and reach the lower airways and bloodstream. WHO warns that both short-term (hours and days) and long-term (months and years) exposure to PM2.5 pollutants poses risks to human’s health. Those includes cardiovascular and respiratory morbidity, such as aggravation of asthma, respiratory systems and an increase in hospital admissions. In some cases exposure can lead to mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Interestingly, NSW Health official website considers an exposure to PM2.5 risky only if it is happening over long periods (years).
Another very serious pollutant that is released during bushfires is carbon monoxide (CO). According to Harvard Medical School, exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide over a long period (weeks or months) can cause flu, headache, malaise (a general sick feeling), fatigue and in some cases nausea and vomiting, numbness, unexplained vision problems, insomnia, and impaired memory and concentration. Evidence suggests that chronic exposure to carbon monoxide may result in changes to the function and structure of the heart that could leave it more susceptible to stress.
With Australian bushfires raging for months now and the bushfire season not ending anytime soon, health impacts on Australian population and, especially on children, might be significant. And it seems we are left all alone to protect our children from the threat of unsafe Australian air.
Australian coal and how it pollutes our air
More than three thousands Australians die from air pollution each year with thousands of others suffering from stroke, heart disease and asthma as a result of exposure to air pollutants. Before the current bushfire crisis the main source of air pollution was coming from burning coal. Coal-fired power stations contributing to the local air pollution by releasing large amounts of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Even the smallest amount of exposure to these two air pollutants can cause harmful effects to our health, especially for kids, pregnant women and unborn children, elderly people and people with chronic disease. It is known that sulfur dioxide worsens the symptoms of asthma and that it can reduce infant birth weight, increase cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and increase hospital admissions. Nitrogen dioxide not only impacts asthma sufferers, but also worsens allergies and decreases lung function, even at low concentrations.
Even though the consequences and health impacts of fossil fuels extraction and burning are well known, it doesn’t seem to influence the decision makers and governmental officials much. In the upcoming years Australia plans to continue building massive fossil fuels plants in addition to infamous Adani’s Carmichael mine which if built will become the biggest coal mine in Australia’s history, contributing not only to more air pollution with its 4.6 billion carbon emissions, but putting at risk the Great Barrier Reef and destroying ancestral lands, water and cultures to name just a few issues related to this project.
The Australian air pollution crisis has already influenced hundreds of people in fire affected areas with many complaining of headaches, respiratory problems and asthma. The world’s leading health experts and authorities unanimously agree that the exposure to air pollutants - even if only short-term - might impact human’s health with children being one of the most vulnerable group of the population. The real scale of this disaster the country finds itself in will only be possible to assess in the upcoming months and possibly years to come. And as of now we should be doing all we can to protect those who can’t yet protect themselves.