Jan. 08 2018

Air Pollution Threatens Children’s Health, Exacerbates Inequity

It’s no secret that air pollution is bad for our health, particularly for children’s health. But dirty air is worse still for poor children. According to Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Mailman School, fossil fuel combustion not only makes us sick, it is exacerbating economic inequality.

In a commentary published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Perera cites more than 100 studies and reports, referencing decades of scholarship and laying out the evidence that air pollution harms children’s health—particularly poor children who are more likely to live in areas with high concentrations of toxins. Numerous studies by the Environmental Health Sciences professor and her colleagues have connected early life exposure to toxic pollutants and later health issues, from asthma and obesity to developmental delays and behavioral problems.

“Fossil-fuel combustion by-products are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future and are major contributors to global inequality and environmental injustice,” Perera writes.

Fossil fuel combustion also endangers children indirectly—through climate change. This is especially true of the one billion poor children worldwide, many who live in areas vulnerable to extreme flooding, drought, and other impacts of climate change. At the same time, poor children are less resilient to these changes due to inadequate nutrition, lack of adequate social support, and psychosocial stresses. According to one estimate cited in the article, 66.5 million children worldwide were directly affected by weather-related disasters every year from 1990–2000, of whom 600,000 died.

“By impairing children’s health, ability to learn, and potential to contribute to society, pollution and climate change cause children to become less resilient and the communities they live in to become less equitable,” she writes.

The article concludes with a list of solutions, some of which are already being implemented. Clean technologies can reduce or replace fossil fuel emissions, as can policies that prioritize urban density and inter-urban freight and passenger rail travel.

Environmental policies like these are not just good for us; they also make good fiscal sense. Perera cites an Environmental Protection Agency report prepared during the Obama Administration that estimates the co-benefits of its Clean Power Plan were worth $25–$62 billion, far more than the estimated $7–$9 billion in compliance costs.

“The mounting health and economic costs of pollution and climate change from fossil-fuel combustion are already spurring mitigation efforts that can serve as models for other communities, and regional, state and global entities,” she concludes. “These provide hope for the future.”