We all know that when we breathe in polluted air, pollutants go deep into our lungs, causing serious damage to the respiratory tract. Now, a report from UNICEF has warned that air pollution has the potential to affect brain development in infants.
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are the most vital for the brain’s growth; this is the time when neural connections are made that strengthen brain function for future life.
Pia Rebello Britto, the UNICEF chief of early childhood development, said, “The brains of babies and young children are constructed by a complex interplay of rapid neural connections that begin before birth. These neural connections shape a child’s optimal thinking, learning, health, memory, linguistic, and motor skills.”
Air pollution affects brain development in children through several mechanisms:
- Air pollutants can cause neuroinflammation by damaging the blood-brain barrier, which can lead to conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in later life.
- Some air pollution particles, such as magnetite (very widespread in urban outdoor air pollution), can make their way into the body via the olfactory nerve and the gut. Magnetite’s magnetic charge can cause neurodegenerative diseases.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), formed when fossil fuels are burned and are more prevalent in the areas of high automobile traffic, can affect the brain’s white matter.
According to UNICEF, almost 17 million infants worldwide live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits.