Air pollution
Air pollution is the 10th leading cause of death in the European Union.

Air pollution causes over 1,200 premature deaths per year in people under the age of 18 in Europe and significantly increases the risk of disease later in life, according to European Environment Agency (EEA) air quality assessment published on Monday. 

“Despite improvements over past years, the level of key air pollutants in many European countries remain stubbornly above World Health Organization (WHO) health-based guidelines, especially in central-eastern Europe and Italy,” according to the EEA.

Some 97% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the 2021 WHO annual guideline of 5 µg/m3.

Traffic, heating, and industry are the main sources of air pollution in Europe, and while emissions have declined, air pollution levels are still not safe – particularly for children.

Vulnerability of children

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults as they have higher and faster breathing rates, take in more air per kilogram of body weight and breathe air closer to the ground where some pollutants, especially from vehicle exhausts, are emitted and become concentrated. 

“Moreover, children inhale a larger fraction of air through their mouths than adults. Due to this increased oral breathing, pollution penetrates deep into the lower respiratory tract, which is more permeable,” according to the EEA.

Their bodies and organs, including their lungs, are also still in development, which further increases risk and their immune systems are weaker than those of adults.

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults (European Environmental Agency).

“Maternal exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight and risk of pre-term birth,” according to the agency.

“After birth, ambient air pollution increases the risk of several health problems, including asthma, reduced lung function, respiratory infections and allergies. It also can aggravate chronic conditions like asthma, which afflicts 9% of children and adolescents in Europe, as well as increasing the risk of some chronic diseases later in adulthood.”

There is also growing evidence that air pollution affects children’s brain development, contributes to cognitive impairment, and that it may play a role in the development of some types of autism.

The agency recommends that particular attention should be paid to improving air quality near schools and kindergartens, such as growing vegetation to screen pollution.

“Air pollution levels across Europe are still unsafe and European air quality policies should aim to protect all citizens, but especially our children, who are most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.

“It is urgent that we continue to step up measures at EU, national and local level to protect our children, who cannot protect themselves. The surest way to keep them safe is by making the air we all breathe cleaner.”

Image Credits: Mariordo.

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