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How does air pollution affect children’s health – and how can we help?

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

While we try to protect them from everything, there are some things that we can’t protect children from. Air pollution is one of them.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1.8 billion children under the age of 15 breathe air every day that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk.

Children are classed as a vulnerable group, meaning pollution can be deadly for them. In recent years, more and more research has been conducted into the link between air pollution and children’s health, with some terrifying results. But what can we do about it?

Find out in this article, which identifies the risks, benefits and solutions.

The affect of air pollution on chlidren's health. Air pollution symptoms for children, including respiratory problems, pneumonia and mortality.

How does air pollution affect children’s health?

Air pollution can affect children’s health both physically and mentally. Here are some issues that can materialise as a result of exposure to unsafe air quality.

Respiratory problems

Based on data from the World Health Organisation, it’s estimated that 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.

Asthma is one of the most common chronic respiratory conditions affecting children who are exposed to dirty air. Increased indoor levels of particulate matter is estimated to worsen asthma symptoms in children by 6-7% for a 10 μg·m-3 increment in indoor PM2.5.

And research commissioned by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found that almost a third (27%) of all schools and colleges in the UK were located in areas where levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) were above the World Health Organisation’s guideline limits.


Pneumonia – a disease that inflames the lungs, causing a build up of fluid, making it difficult to breathe – is the leading cause of death in children.

According to UNICEF, children’s risk of developing pneumonia is doubled following exposure to air pollution. This could be caused by indoor and outdoor pollution, as well as second-hand smoke, and is said to cause over 920,000 deaths globally as a result.

Childhood cancers

There have been numerous studies which link traffic-related air pollution to leukaemia in children.

Childhood obesity

While research is still being conducted further into this link, studies have found a correlation between air pollution and an increased risk of childhood obesity.

According to research, the major pollutants causing obesity are nitrous oxides (NOx), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5).

The combination of increased risk to heart disease, some cancers and respiratory problems could contribute to this correlation.


Researchers have found that high levels of air pollution may damage children’s cognitive abilities, including links to attention problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Common types of air pollution, such as those from smog, acid rain and motor vehicles, can affect the central nervous system, leading to these mental health issues. This could be a particular concern for children as their brains are not yet fully developed.

How does air pollution affect unborn babies?

According to research, the combination of outdoor and indoor pollution causes approximately seven million premature deaths every year.

While in the womb, air pollution can contribute to stunted lung development as well as brain damage, which can lead to a shorter attention span and increase risks of ADHD.

It can also lead to premature birth and low birth weight, both of which can be extremely worrying for new families.

Why are children more vulnerable to air pollution than adults?

There are a host of reasons why air pollution disproportionately affects children. These include:

  • Their organs, such as their heart and lungs, are still developing

  • Their lungs are smaller, meaning their breaths are faster. As a result they breathe in more pollutants

  • They live closer to the ground where some pollutants are more concentrated

  • They may spend more time outside playing, exposing them to poor outdoor air quality levels

  • Their immune systems are still developing, making them highly susceptible to viruses and bacteria. This increases the risk of contracting a respiratory infection and weakens their chances of being able to fight it

  • Children have a longer life expectancy than adults, so diseases caused by pollution will affect their health for longer

How could clean air help children?

Improving the air quality, even slightly, could have plenty of positive effects on children. These include:

  • Improved health and development: improving the air quality would help to reduce the likelihood of the illnesses and health issues mentioned above. A World Health Organization study estimates that we could prevent 2.1 million deaths per year if we met global air quality guidelines for PM2.5. And according to research, reducing air pollution in schools could result in halving the number of children suffering from poor lung function.

  • Improved economic performance: a World Bank/Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation study found that deaths from air pollution cost the global economy about US$225 billion in lost labour income and more than US$5 trillion in welfare losses in 2013. Improved health and development in children can not only help them to achieve higher incomes but reduced air pollution can also help lower health expenditures at household and government levels – which add up to billions of savings at the national level

  • Improved productivity: studies have shown that better ventilation – either through the removal of pollution sources or from increased outdoor ventilation – helps children work at greater speed and have improved test scores

  • Lower absenteeism: higher ventilation reduces the transmission and spread of infections and reduces short-term sick leave associated with respiratory illness

How to protect children from air pollution includes becoming an eco school, avoid smoking and cycle or walk

How to protect children from air pollution

Now we know the risks and benefits, here are some ways that you can help to improve air quality for children:

  • Become an eco school: there’s a growing trend amongst schools around the globe to become sustainable or green schools. This movement doesn’t just consider air pollution, but the whole spectrum of sustainability and involves implementing more eco-friendly practices while teaching students about what’s going on in the world

  • Improve air quality in schools: you could make your school into a Pure Air Zone, one free from VOCs, allergens and viruses. U-Earth’s AIRcel machines can make this happen with the ability to eat up to 3.5kg of contaminants a day

  • Avoid smoking, especially during pregnancy, and remove them from situations where there’s second-hand smoke

  • Consider moving to an area with better air quality

  • Walk and cycle rather than drive, avoid areas where the pollution is worse if possible

  • Cut down on toxic household products, such as cleaning sprays and aerosols, opting for more natural alternatives

Protect the future

The ideas mentioned above are grassroots movements, and real change will only come if there’s a seismic shift in our pollution output. But if more people put their mind to it, we could create cleaner air for children. This is important not only for their futures, but for the future of the planet as a whole.

Becoming a Pure Air Zone is one of the simplest solutions to make sure children have access to cleaner, safer air. Installing one of U-Earth's pioneering air purifiers to your school or business can improve children's learning, focus and health.

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