Babies who are exposed to high air pollution develop worse lung function as children and teenagers, research suggests.
A study of 915 children found that the higher the levels of air pollution they were exposed to in infancy, the worse their lung function became as they grew into adolescence.
Researchers in Germany measured the infants’ air pollution exposure and then repeatedly assessed their breathing, carrying out tests at the ages of six, ten and 15.
The team, who presented their findings at the European Respiratory Society International Congress, found an even bigger impact on lung function in children who developed asthma.
But they also found that babies who were breastfed for at least the first 12 weeks of their life were given some degree of protection.
Researcher Dr Qi Zhao from the IUF-Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Düsseldorf, told the virtual conference: ‘Evidence is growing that exposure to air pollution is a threat to children’s respiratory health.
‘Babies’ lungs are especially vulnerable because they are growing and developing, so we wanted to see if there are longer-term impacts for babies who are exposed to air pollution as they grow up.’
He added: ‘Our results suggest that babies who grow up breathing polluted air, even at levels below EU regulations, have poorer breathing as they grow into children and adults.
‘This is worrying because previous research suggests that damage to lungs in the first year of life can affect respiratory health throughout life.’
A separate study presented at the same conference, carried out by the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, found adults were also at risk.
The research, looking at 23,000 Danish nurses, found the risk of developing asthma rose according to levels of nitrogen dioxide and sooty particles called PM2.5. For each increase in PM2.5 of 6.3 micrograms per cubic metre, asthma risk rose 29 per cent.
And for each increase of nitrogen dioxide of 8.2 micrograms per cubic metre, there was a 16 per cent rise in asthma risk.
The levels of air pollution that the nurses were exposed to was relatively low compared to many European cities, averaging around 18.9 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 and 12.8 micrograms per cubic metre for nitrogen dioxide.
The current European standards for PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic metre, and for nitrogen dioxide 40 migrograms per cubic metre.
Shuo Liu, of Copenhagen, said: ‘The fact that we found a link with asthma, even at relatively low levels of exposure, suggests that there is no safe threshold for air pollution. This is strong evidence that our regulations on air pollution need to be stricter if we want to prevent cases of asthma.’