A new study from the University of East Anglia has found that poor air quality could be causing cognitive deficits in babies and toddlers. The negative impact on children’s brain development could potentially have life-long consequences.
The research, published in the journal eLife, reveals a link between poor air quality in India and impaired cognition among infants under two years old. The study is the first to demonstrate a link between poor air quality and cognitive problems in babies during the critical period when brain growth is at its peak and the brain may be particularly sensitive to toxins.
“Very small particulate fragments in the air are a major concern as they can move from the respiratory tract into the brain,” said lead researcher Professor John Spencer. “Until now, studies had failed to show a link between poor air quality and cognitive problems in babies, when brain growth is at its peak and the brain may be particularly sensitive to toxins. Our study is the first to show this association. We worked with families in rural India to see how in-home air quality affects infants’ cognition.”
The team collaborated with the Community Empowerment Lab in Lucknow, India – a global health research and innovation organization that works with rural communities to engage in science collaboratively. They worked with families from a range of socio-economic backgrounds in Shivgarh, a rural community in Uttar Pradesh. This particular Indian state has been strongly impacted by poor air quality.
The experts assessed the visual working memory and visual processing speed of 215 infants using a specially-designed cognition task from October 2017 to June 2019. On one display, the tots were shown flashing colored squares that were always the same after each ‘blink’. On a second display, one colored square changed after each blink.
The researchers used air quality monitors in the children’s homes to measure emission levels and air quality, and also took into account and controlled for family socio-economic status.
“This research shows for the first time that there is an association between poor air quality and impaired visual cognition in the first two years of life, when brain growth is at its peak,” said Professor Spencer.
“Such impacts could carry forward across years, negatively impacting long-term development. Reversely, our research indicates that global efforts to improve air quality could have benefits to infants’ emerging cognitive abilities. This, in turn, could have a cascade of positive impacts because improved cognition can lead to improved economic productivity in the long term and reduce the burden on healthcare and mental health systems.”
The researchers found that air quality was poorer in homes that used solid cooking materials like cow dung cake, with the cooking fuel commonly used at home being one of the key factors the team measured. “Therefore, efforts to reduce cooking emissions in homes should be a key target for intervention,” said Professor Spencer.
Consistent with this aim and with the goal of improving maternal and child health, the Government of India has launched a national-level flagship program called the “Ujjwala Yojana” – a scheme that brings LPG fuel to women below the poverty line across the entire country.
The research was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with Durham University, the Community Empowerment Lab in Lucknow (India), and Brown University (US). The study was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
There are several global efforts underway to improve air quality. One example is the World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines, which provide recommendations on safe levels of air pollution exposure. Another example is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which includes a goal on promoting sustainable cities and communities, including actions to reduce air pollution.
In addition, there are international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This agreement includes commitments from countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to air pollution and climate change.
At the national level, many countries have implemented policies and regulations to improve air quality, such as reducing emissions from transportation and industry, and promoting the use of renewable energy sources.
Overall, global efforts to improve air quality are aimed at reducing the negative impacts of air pollution on human health, the environment, and the economy.
Poor air quality can have a range of negative impacts on human health, including both short-term and long-term effects. Some of the most common health issues associated with poor air quality include:
Air pollution can irritate the lungs and airways, leading to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. It can also trigger asthma attacks and worsen existing respiratory conditions.
Exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems. This is because air pollution can cause inflammation in the body, damage blood vessels, and increase the risk of blood clots.
Certain air pollutants, such as benzene and formaldehyde, have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Long-term exposure to air pollution has also been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.
As the recent study from the University of East Anglia showed, poor air quality can be linked to cognitive deficits in infants and toddlers. Studies have also linked air pollution to cognitive problems in adults, including decreased attention, memory, and problem-solving abilities.
Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can increase the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and birth defects. It can also affect the development of the fetal brain.
Overall, poor air quality is a major public health concern, and efforts to improve air quality are essential for protecting human health and well-being.