01.12.2017 change 01.12.2017

Experts: Smog threatens children and affects future health

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

Polluted air affects not only the health, but also the intelligence of children and the entire later life. In order to change this, changes of habits are needed alongside systemic solutions, experts said at the conference "Air pollution and children\'s health".

The conference was organized by HEAL Polska, the organisation that deals with the impact of air pollution on public health.

Coal-burning stoves are the source of the largest percentage of air pollutants in Poland, Prof. Frederica Perera of Columbia University said on Monday during a video presentation. Researchers from the US and the Jagiellonian University Medical College conducted a study of pregnant women exposed to smog in New York and Kraków. In their children, they observed reduced birth weight, lower head circumference, lower intelligence at the age of 5, behavioural problems at the age of 6-7, symptoms of ADHD, anxiety and depression at the age of 9, changes in the brain visible on MRI and greater risk of asthma, Perera said. Acording to her, these effects have a measurable impact on academic performance, salary in the later life and future health. Reducing fossil fuel consumption would result not only in health benefits but also economic benefits.

Prof. Boleslaw Samoliński from the Medical University of Warsaw reminded that the London smog of December 1952 was particularly tragic, causing 12,000 deaths. As a result, fireplaces were banned in London. Also in Poland the main problem is "low emission" - pollutants emitted by obsolete furnaces. Contrary to appearances, air is cleaner in the centre of Warsaw than on the outskirts, where stoves in single-family houses are often fired with anything at hand. This has been confirmed, for example, by a study of the air in Warsaw\'s Wawer.

The impact of polluted air on health is manifold. It promotes allergic diseases, arterial hypertension and cardiovascular complications. While on the coast air pollution shortens life by 15-16 months, in Małopolska - by as much as 43 months.

In Poland, the quality of the air is shaped primarily by communal-residential sources and road transport - old stoves and old cars. "Coal will continue to be a source of energy in Poland for a long time, local heaters should be replaced with power plants, transfer losses should be reduced, energy saving and technical progress should be introduced, and, above all, the behaviour of people should change" - said Samoliński. And in case of smog? We should check dust monitoring results, use a HEPA filter in the car, and walk with a filter mask (not a surgical mask!), use air purifier at home - he added.

According to Prof. Wojciech Hanke, national environmental health consultant, there is evidence that reducing exposure to dust can improve health. For example, in Linz, Austria it reduced the risk of asthma in children.

"Compared to other European countries, Poland has by higher levels of particulate pollutants and benzoaplyn" - noted Prof. Henryk Mazurek, head of the Clinic of Pneumonia and Cystic Fibrosis in Rabka-Zdrój. Most air pollutants cause respiratory problems, including exacerbation of allergic diseases (especially asthma). Children at the risk of exposure to can suffer oncological consequences in a few years. Masks and home air purifiers can help, but they reduce the amount of pollutants in the air by up to several dozen percent.

Children are particularly threatened by smog due to shorter and narrower airways, immature detoxification systems, frequent mouth breathing, significant physical activity and spending time outside. Calculated per kilogram of body weight, a child has more minute ventilation and a longer life expectancy than an adult.

Experts remind that the smallest particles (2 to 0.1 microns and smaller) easily penetrate not only the lungs but also the blood. "Polluted air irritates mucous membranes, causing local and systemic inflammatory changes. It can also act indirectly by altering the bacterial flora of the respiratory tract" - said Prof. Mazurek.

He emphasised that there are various types of smog. The "London" type of smog that is formed at low temperatures by carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons as well as sulphur dusts and oxides. In a warm climate there is a Los Angeles type of smog containing nitrogen oxides and ozone. With the warming climate, LA smog type may become more common in Poland.

In addition to exhaust fumes emitted by home stoves or cars, secondary dust can be a major threat. It has been investigated by Dr Monika Rusin from the Medical University of Silesia. She took 400 samples in 15 cities of the Upper Silesian Agglomeration.

In the case of one of the playgrounds and a football field in Sosnowiec, the concentrations of heavy metals (zinc, cadmium, lead) in the substrate was up to 30 times the standard levels. Instead of clean sand, the substrate contain waste from the surrounding dumps. In Olkusz, where a skatepark was built in a reclaimed calamine (zinc ore) mine, the cadmium level in the soil was more than 100 times the standard level (over 200 milligrams per kilogram of dry matter, with 2 milligrams allowed). It is unclear whether the heavy metals in the soil are remnants of the mine, or the waste from the heaps.

Heavy metals can cause organ damage, promote allergies (zinc), cancer (cadmium), and even reduce intelligence and cause attention disorders (lead). In the case of the surveyed areas, both airborne particles and particles on hands pose a threat. Children are particularly at risk because they often put dirty hands in their mouths, they absorb more metals from the digestive tract and respiratory tract, and their metabolism is faster than in adults.

Among preventative measures - in addition to monitoring heavy metal content in play and recreation areas - Dr. Rusin recommends correcting behaviour in children. This includes washing hands before a meal, changing clothes after playing outdoors and washing toys used in playgrounds. (PAP)

Science in Poland

Author: Paweł Wernicki

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