Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

How The Threats of Polluted Airways Permeate into Maternal and Child Health

By Julia MalitsPublished March 11, 2015

Indoor and outdoor air pollution has proven to be especially harmful to mothers and children, who are particularly vulnerable as a result of both biological and socioeconomic factors. The environmental health risks among both mothers and their children have been observed across the globe, in cities like Beijing and New York City. Unfortunately, these negative trends do not appear to be slowing down.

By Julia Malits, 3/11/15

We often see photos of the smog in Beijing, and the facemasks that people must adorn when breathing the outdoor air and all its particulates. A recent report released by The World Health Organization found that air pollution caused more deaths per year than AIDS, road injuries and diabetes combined. In tandem with these findings, the WHO reported that approximately 40 percent of the seven million individuals killed by air pollution worldwide in 2012 were from Beijing and comparably urbanized, polluted cities in China. There is indisputable evidence that the adverse effects of air pollution include serious threats to human health. However, and as many have yet to appreciate, the rising concerns of air pollution especially permeate into maternal and child health in areas beyond Beijing.

To clarify what is meant by air pollution, let's examine the most common and harmful contaminants in the indoor and outdoor air we breathe. Indoor air pollution, as defined by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, "involves exposures to particulates, carbon oxides and other pollutants carried by indoor air or dust." Examples of contaminants include building gases, such as carbon monoxide, household products and chemicals, allergens, mold, pollen and tobacco smoke and building materials. Notably, the last of these contaminants includes asbestos, a chemical that has been in the news a lot in recent years for its serious threats to our health. In contrast, outdoor air pollution is defined as, "exposure that takes place outside of the built environment." Outdoor air pollutants include fine particles by the burning of fossil fuels, noxious gases, such as sulfur dioxide, ground-level ozone (a major component in smog) and tobacco smoke.

An article by Bloomberg News reported that indoor air pollution is particularly threatening to poor women and children based upon certain sociological factors. As the article explains, socioeconomically disadvantaged women and children tend to spend most of their days at home breathing in the smoke and soot released by leaky coal and wood cook stoves that have poor ventilation. These pollutants have been linked to a string of health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, adverse pregnancy outcomes (such as preterm birth) and even death. And outdoor air isn't any better.

A recent research project conducted at Columbia University's Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCEH) found that certain particulates in the New York City air poses serious threats for mothers and their children. The team of scientists found that New York City children with prenatal exposure to high levels of pollutants in vehicle exhaust had a five times greater risk of attention problems. Their findings support previous studies that mothers' exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released into the air by burning fossil fuels, are associated with adolescent behavioral problems linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder . Equally troubling, previous work by the CCEH found a significant link between PAHs and anxiety, depression and reduced IQs in children between the ages of 3 and 7. These results were observed quite prominently among low income and minority children who bear an increased risk of exposure to traffic-related air pollution. Beyond the New York City skylines, a team of Columbia researchers also found that infants whose mothers were exposed to coal-powered power plants had worse memory and learning skills.

Aside from socioeconomic factors, there is another reason for children's particular susceptibility to the health threats of air pollution. As the NIEHS explicates, children have greater proportional exposure to air pollutants than do adults because they eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air per unit of body weight. In addition, children's bodies are still developing until they reach their twenties. Coupled together, these factors show that children interact with the environment in a way that leaves them much more vulnerable than grown adults in all corners of the world.

In order to improve the health status of mothers and children impacted by environmental air pollutants, governments and institutions need to better mobilize counteractive efforts. Mortality rates, learning disabilities and behavioral problems associated with air pollutions are tragic because they are entirely preventable. For this reason, tackling these maternal and child health risks need to be treated with the highest priority to ensure the health and safety of the generations to come.