Pollution: Preventing its harmful effects on the developing brain in early childhood

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Pollution: Preventing its harmful effects on the developing brain in early childhood

The role of air pollution in the climate crisis is a far-reaching one, with some pollutants such as black carbon and ozone increasing warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere, and others such as sulfur dioxide forming light-reflecting particles and having a cooling effect on the climate.

The harmful effects of pollution extend to water, soil, and food too, and can adversely affect, and sometimes destroy, many living things on this planet.

Seeing as air pollution is almost always at the front burners of climate discussions, it is therefore of utmost importance to draw attention to the effects pollution has on the developing brain.

The brain is made of cells called neurons, which function by sending signals to each other and to the rest of the body, thus controlling all activities of the body.

The brain starts developing soon after conception. Neurons are formed in the fetus during pregnancy, and grow and mature in a very systemic matter throughout pregnancy and early childhood, to finally form an adult brain.

The maximum development of the brain takes place till the age of five years. At birth, a baby’s brain is a quarter in size of the adult brain; by five years it is already 90 percent of the adult brain.

The growing brain is extremely susceptible to harmful effects of toxins and pollutants. More and more studies on humans as well as animals have shown that exposure to pollutants, either during fetal life or after birth, can impact the development as well as the functioning of neurons.

The brain cells function by means of biochemical substances called neurotransmitters. Pollutants can also affect the functioning of neurotransmitters, which can adversely affect the sensitive circuitry of the developing brain. Once damaged, the process is irreversible. it is difficult to restore the impairments.

This can have devastating short- or long-term effects at an individual level. Children may show developmental delays, behavior problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ( ADHD), Autism, and eventually at the school level, poor academic performance and learning disabilities. In fact, an association has been found between traffic-related pollution and Autism in certain epidemiological studies. Finally, we end up with adults with lower IQs, and brain and mental health issues.

According to a paper released by UNICEF in 2017, air pollution, just as inadequate nutrition and stimulation, and exposure to violence during the critical first 1,000 days of life, can impact children’s early childhood development by affecting their growing brains:

  • Ultrafine pollution particles are so small that they can enter the bloodstream, travel to the brain, and damage the blood-brain barrier, which can cause neuro-inflammation.
  • Some pollution particles, such as ultrafine magnetite, can enter the body through the olfactory nerve and the gut, and, due to their magnetic charge, create oxidative stress – which is known to cause neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Other types of pollution particles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can damage areas in the brain that are critical in helping neurons communicate, the foundation for children’s learning and development.
  • A young child’s brain is especially vulnerable because it can be damaged by a smaller dosage of toxic chemicals, compared to an adult’s brain. Children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe more rapidly and also because their physical defenses and immunities are not fully developed.

Coupled with the effects of poverty and economic deprivation, children from the economically weaker sections are also exposed the most to different kinds of pollution and are thus at maximum risk of the adverse effects of pollution.

Collectively, as a society and as a nation, the loss of future intellectual capital is unacceptable.

Below are steps to mitigate the impact of air pollution on children’s developing brains, including immediate steps parents can take to reduce children’s exposure in the home to harmful fumes:

  • Reduce air pollution by investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion; provide affordable access to public transport; increase green spaces in urban areas; and provide better waste management options to prevent the open burning of harmful chemicals.
  • Reduce children’s exposure to pollutants by making it feasible for children to travel during times of the day when air pollution is lower; provide appropriately fitting air filtration masks in extreme cases; and create smart urban planning so that major sources of pollution are not located near schools, clinics or hospitals.
  • Improve children’s overall health to improve their resilience. This includes the prevention and treatment of pneumonia, as well as the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding and good nutrition.
  • Improve knowledge and monitoring of air pollution. Reducing children’s exposure to pollutants and the sources of air pollution begins with understanding the quality of the air they are breathing in the first place.

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