Parents want to do all they can to protect their babies from any and all dangers, but there are some instances when, sadly, there is only so much they can do. Such is the case with air pollution, which is nothing short of a tragedy because babies all around the world are breathing toxic air, according to a new UNICEF report. In fact, 17 million babies who have not even reached their first birthdays yet live in areas where air pollution exceeds the World Health Organization's (WHO) international limits by at least six times. The havoc that this must be wreaking on their little lungs is more or less obvious, but even more disturbing is how it most certainly is damaging their brains.
The possible effects of exposure to such air pollution on any number of babies would be breathtaking. As the report, Danger in the air: How air pollution can affect brain development in young children, explains, particulate air pollution has been directly linked to "verbal and non-verbal IQ and memory, reduced test scores, grade point averages among schoolchildren, as well as other neurological behavioral problems." Clearly, such pollution has the ability to negatively affect kids' very futures. And it will, if something does not change drastically.
According to the report, babies are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because they have weaker immune systems and breathe faster than adults. It also takes less of a toxic chemical to get to them. And little ones in some places are experiencing the ill effects much more than others: about 12 million of the 17 million babies who live in such super polluted areas are located in South Asia, while another 4 million of them call East Asia and the Pacific home, according to UNICEF's report.
But this is solidly a global problem. In China, the BBC reported, pollution shortens residents' life expectancies by an average of three years. Also, a study out of London that also came out this week found that pregnant women's chronic exposure to toxic air there is leaving their babies with low birth weights that can lead to lifelong health challenges. Frustratingly, in London, the researchers reported that there's not much these women can do to avoid the pollution, instead calling upon the government to address the problem of vehicle air pollution, for example.
It's imperative that such entities actively confront the problem, UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said in a statement accompanying the report's publication:
Not only do pollutants harm babies' developing lungs – they can permanently damage their developing brains — and, thus, their futures. Protecting children from air pollution not only benefits children. It is also benefits their societies — realized in reduced health care costs, increased productivity and a safer, cleaner environment for everyone.
But how? In its report, UNICEF endorses investment in renewable energies to replace fossil fuel combustion, more affordable access to public transportation, an increase in urban green spaces, improved waste management options, and more. Much of that, of course, is beyond parents' immediate control if they do, in fact, live in an area where their babies' health and brains are at risk. One more accessible UNICEF suggestion, though, is to eschew tobacco products around little ones. Parents can also have their little ones wear face masks in extreme cases, as well use air filtering systems.
All in all, it's impossible to deny that something has to give when it comes to cultivating a healthy environment for all people to inhabit. For Americans, one major way to tackle this problem is by making sure to support elected officials who are dedicated to making the necessary changes for a healthier planet.
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