Air pollution may hurt school kids' lungs

NEW YORK Wed Feb 23, 2011 3:21pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Allergy season is known to aggravate kids' asthma attacks, but other types of fine particle pollution in the air throughout the year also measurably affect children's lung function, sometimes dramatically, according to a study by Taiwanese researchers.

On the day following a rise in one of the air pollutants studied, the researchers found, schoolchildren had a smaller lung capacity -- presumably due to inflammation that made their airways shrink up.

It's well established that poor air quality can worsen symptoms in people with asthma or other lung disease, and some studies have linked it to heart disease, too. But few studies have followed the health effects over time.

In the current study, Bing-Yu Chen of the National Taiwan University and colleagues followed 100 school-aged children -- some with asthma or hay fever and some without allergic diseases.

Children are thought to be particularly susceptible to the ill effects of air pollutants because their airways are smaller and their immune systems less developed.

The researchers tested the youngsters' lungs once a month over a school year and collected data on several air pollutants, including fungal spores, ozone and fine particles less than 2.5 microns (millionths of a meter) in size, which are often byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

A 10-years-old's lung capacity is typically between 2 and 3 liters, but even a modest increase in fine particles in the air was tied in the study to a 0.16-liter decrease in the amount of air kids could take in. A similar effect was seen for fungal spores, even after taking into account levels of other air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.

Ozone also affected the airways, but the researchers didn't find any increases in the number of asthma attacks.

Nonetheless, the researchers write in the journal Pediatrics, the findings suggest that even without producing observable changes in asthma attacks or the children's medication use, exposure to pollutants and spores could harm their lung function.

SOURCE: bit.ly/ek15R6 Pediatrics, online February 21, 2011.

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