A new study has shown that a reduction in air pollution increases the respiratory function of children between the ages of 11 and 15, which was found to be a critical point in lung development.
While the idea of air pollution leading to a smaller lung capacity and compromised breathing among children is nothing new, this new study has finally made clear whether a reduction in air quality over a period of time would reduce any problems developed.
Environmentalists argue that the federal emission standards do not do enough to protect health, while conservatives remain adamant that the regulations are in fact too restrictive and costly. However, the new study suggests that better air quality does in fact improve children's health, and that this can only result from tighter regulations.
"It (the research) provides confirmation that the work we've done to improve air pollution has made a difference in kids' health," said Dr. Joel Kaufman, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the research. "There are more kids comfortable running around."
Researchers at the University of Southern California paid careful attention to the effects of air pollution levels for 17 years, finding them on the decline within five regional communities. Breathing capacity was also measured in 2,120 schoolchildren between 1994-1998, 1997-2001, and 2007-2011.
Within that timespan, federal and state emissions standards had lowered the output of automobiles, diesel trucks, refineries, ships and trains in California, causing the number of fine particulates to fall by 50% and nitrogen dioxide levels to decrease by 35% within the communities studied.
The children who participated in the study blew into a spirometer, which measures the amount of air they could breathe out in one second as well as how much air they were completely capable of blowing out all together, writes Jan Hoffman for The New York Times.
As the air became cleaner, scientists found that the lungs of children born later were stronger than those of the children born earlier. In addition, the percentage of children with impaired lung function was found to decrease from 8% to 3.5%.
When the third wave of children were tested in 2011, it was found that their lung capacity was an average of 10% greater than those children studied in 1998. The effects were found in both boys and girls across all ethnicities and races.
The results of the study were that children who grew up breathing cleaner air could end up living longer than those who grew up with more polluted air. Without additional factors such as smoking or asthma, normal lung function has been found to decrease beginning in early adulthood. "When they're done with the teenage years, they're stuck with the lungs they have for the rest of their lives," Dr. Gauderman said.
Previous research has found that when adults are exposed to poor air quality for a long period of time, they are more likely to succumb to premature death from pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.
Although more research on the subject is needed, Dr. Kaufman believes that a 10% improvement in air quality could mean a delay of clinical lung disease by as much as 5-6 years.