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Air Pollution May Increase Newborn’s Risk of Hospitalization

Administration Staff

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As if new parents didn't have enough to worry about, a study has found a link between air pollution and the likelihood that an infant will develop bronchiolitis, even when air pollution is within regulatory limits. Hospitalizations before age one are most often caused by bronchiolitis, an infection of the lungs' airways. Though this is unwelcome news to all parents, there are ways they can improve indoor air quality.

The Research and Increased Risk

The study, "Influence of Ambient Air Pollutant Sources on Clinical Encounters for Infant Bronchiolitis," was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Dr. Catherine Karr of the University of Washington, Seattle set out to study the effect of ambient air pollution on babies' likelihood of developing bronchiolitis. She and her research team undertook a study of 11,675 infants who had been hospitalized before their first birthday for bronchiolitis. Their results were startling – babies with the most exposure to air pollution were 5 to 10% more likely to require hospitalization for bronchiolitis than were babies exposed to the smallest amounts of air pollution, even in the Pacific Northwest, known for its cleaner air and greener lifestyles. Dr. Karr emphasized how the results of the study confirm that infants are susceptible to diseases caused by chronic exposure to airborne contaminants, "even in regions where we might not think it's a bad air pollution setting." Infants who lived within 50 meters of a major highway had a 6% higher risk of contracting bronchiolitis, despite that air pollution was within acceptable limits.

Bronchiolitis and Infants

Bronchiolitis is a lung infection wherein the bronchioles – the smallest air passages in the lungs – become inflamed. It's usually caused by a virus, most often the respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. Bronchiolitis can be caused by other viruses like the flu or common cold, as well. It's most common during the colder months and infants are especially vulnerable before they reach 6 months. Adults and older children who catch RSV get cold-like symptoms that pass after a week or so, but babies' immune systems are still developing. They can experience bronchiolitis complications, including breathing difficulties, a severe cough, and even blue skin. According to Dr. Karr, 13% of infants who get bronchiolitis end up going to their doctors or to the hospital. The disease also increases their risk of developing asthma when they get older, though the causal link between bronchiolitis and asthma is not well-understood. Researchers have established links between air pollution and asthma in older children, however.

Air Pollutants

During the study, researchers mapped out the sources of air pollution near where the hospitalized infants lived. The most significant contributors to the development of bronchiolitis were auto emissions, industrial emissions, and wood smoke. Interestingly, ozone was negatively associated with the risk of bronchiolitis. Dr. Karr believes it's likely that the deleterious pollutants wear down infants' immune systems, cause cells to become inflamed, and disturb the lungs' natural barriers against respiratory viruses. This allows bronchiolitis to take hold.

Air Pollution Effects In-Utero

Dr. Karr is not alone in studying this issue. Dr. Frederica Perera, Director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health, has been researching the impact of urban air pollution on fetuses. Pregnant women have been fitted with backpacks that monitor air pollution. Researchers then studied the health of their children through adolescence. Their results suggest that urban air pollution impacts the expression of genes while fetuses are still in the womb, causing children to develop asthma when they get older. Dr. Perera emphasizes that "there is growing evidence that prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution may be playing causal roles in the development of respiratory illnesses and asthma." This connection between air pollution and respiratory diseases demonstrates the importance of reducing harmful pollutants in the immediate environment.

Parents Take Action

Dr. Karr identifies some ways parents can reduce the risk of air pollution to their children. Primarily, parents need to reduce those sources of air pollution over which they have control. She suggests checking fireplaces to ensure that wood smoke escapes appropriately. Wood fires should be limited as much as possible. She also suggests choosing schools, child care centers, and homes that are not on major roads that get clogged with traffic. Of course, not every parent can up and move to a new neighborhood; it's especially tough for families in cities where air pollution can be impossible to escape. For those concerned about airborne pollutants, air purifiers may be an effective way of improving indoor air quality.

HEPA Air Purifiers

The American Lung Association has declared HEPA air purifiers to be the most efficient filters at removing harmful airborne irritants. HEPA filters remove 99.97% of particles larger than 0.3 microns (for a comparison, red blood cells are about 8 microns in diameter). Certain HEPA filters, like the one used in the IQAir HealthPro Plus and Oransi Erik remove particles even smaller than that. Using a HEPA air purifier in one's home can be a good way to improve indoor air quality and thereby reduce the amount of harmful pollutants than can irritate the lungs. 

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