Gray Skies and Gray Matter: Pollution Hinders Children's Cerebral Development


You’re waking up to go to work, as you’ve been doing everyday for some years. It’s 5 a.m., and as you sip your coffee, the sky looks a crisp blue. You go through your morning routine, taking, let’s say, about an hour. Finally, you step out of the house, but where just an hour ago stood a beautiful cloudless sky, the world looks a bleak, cloudless gray. That may seem surrealist, if not impossible. However, in many urban realities of the world, the air above is so polluted that even a sunny, beautiful sky casts a bleak, colorless image on the world below once its citizens wake up. This reality, which is becoming more and more aggressively the standard in many urban realities, like in Beijing’s alarmingly constant grayness the rise of which is shown in a twenty-minute Wall Street Journal time lapse below, has societal implications that reach far beyond air quality and weather forecasts, but go so far as to directly impact the development of mankind’s most valued creation: children. 

With the first Geneva conference on Air Pollution and Health as its launchpad, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN’s international public health agency, has released a report that is sure to set ablaze the great fires of global preoccupation. Calling for the attention of the most influential legislators and political entities the world has to offer, this past Monday the UN-tagged agency, released a frightening statement communicating that “air pollution is negatively affecting children’s cerebral development, damaging their health in ways far greater than was previously suspected.”

The official United Nations report states a number of absolutely staggering facts and figures that, as is the hope of the WHO, will hopefully be reason enough to push legislators past the point of acknowledgment and toward the boundaries of action. According to the report, in 2016 alone, more than 600,000 children lost their lives to acute respiratory infections caused by polluted air. Unmentioned within this deeply tragic figure, are the millions of young lives deeply affected by the same phenomenon, whose body, from the very beginning of life, is plagued with “dirty air.” Children, who generally breathe at a more elevated rhythm than adults, find themselves far more exposed to the consequences of breathing polluted air, taking in a greater number of associated toxins. Using this as a jumping-off point, and considering the fact that young children are generally at the mercy of the parents’ decision making, the risk of developing medical complications becomes ever higher, especially in under-developed nations where the problem is seldom even recognized. 

The medical consequences associated with exposure to dangerous doses of polluted air, are many, and dive off into all kinds of biological directions. To begin with, the WHO report indicates that constant exposure to polluted air greatly increases the probability of premature childbirth. Mothers who constantly expose themselves to polluted air, littering both mother and child’s oxygen intake with dangerous toxins, tend to give premature birth to children that are severely underweight, and prone to developing cases of asthma and infantile cancer. Right off the bat, then, the WHO report should ring intense bells of alarm in the ears of any educated listener. In less developed parts of the world like rural India and China, where pollution levels often reach the exorbitant, medical policies of this nature are often overlooked, due to lack of public funds and education, resulting in the development of these cases on a massive scale.

More generally, excessive and premature exposure to polluted air, both inside and outside domestic walls, seems to place a form of a developmental block to children’s cerebral and neuronal development. Neurons, the cells that compose our brain’s gray matter, need immense doses of oxygen during development. This is because, during development, they are forming and establishing the vital connections and synapses (where one neuron meets another) that preclude the formation of stable cognitive abilities. When the air we breathe is polluted, however, children struggle to retain the necessary quantity of oxygen their organism asks of them, for the concentration of the molecule in a given breath of air is dramatically lower than it should be. As a direct result, children, though they may attempt to breathe more rapidly, end up retaining a lot less oxygen, a compound not only necessary for existence but absolutely pivotal in all aspects of development, especially the neuronal. As such, children exposed to great quantities of polluted air develop show signs of severe neuronal underdevelopment, which, as more thoroughly explained in the short lecture below, later in life is associated with cognitive deficiencies that can extend across a number of facets of existence, from social capability, to mathematical intelligence, to linguistic abilities. An underdeveloped brain promises to be a massive hindrance in reaching any child’s full potential. 

“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children, it’s ruining their lives,” says WHO general director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every child should be able to breathe clean air so that they can grow and reach their full potential.” How can any morally just individual not recognize the massive scale of the issue? In ignoring the issue, in remaining impassive in front of the immense toll polluted air takes on society’s future, we inherently set ourselves up for failure, risking the establishment of entire communities afflicted by the same neurodevelopmental disorders. In light of the Geneva conference, hosted by the WHO organization itself, the UN-backed agency asks its member states for the enforcing of a number of measures and policies aimed at reducing these dreadful effects. Though a great part of the appeal addresses the world on a corporate and financial level, pointing the finger at those trespassing global agreements against pollution, the WHO also directs its suggestions to the individual level. There seems to be an understanding, as a matter of fact, that, in many cases, it is strictly up to the parents to keep their child away from environmental conditions that may result in loss of cognitive function down the road. For example, all parents are instructed to provide, for their children, clean air masks whenever it is necessary, to never take the pollution of the air for granted, even within the walls of their own home. The use, at the household level, of polluting oils and gases for cooking, heating, and lighting, are urged to abstain, for the sake of the air that their children breathe, at least within the walls of the home. 

What is perhaps the most worrisome figure of the report, however, is the sheer globally of the phenomenon. Nine out of ten children in the world are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, likely to result in deeply rooted medical complications. Of course, however, many of the world’s most polluted areas, find themselves remarkably removed from receiving and understanding the unlikely alarm, rendering the probability of the WHO’s message sticking around close to none. The required changes, then, need to happen on both the corporate and political level. Though parents must do what they can, governments need to move to punish air pollution, and reward the adoption of cleaner policies, to create environments more suited to the development of intelligent life than that which we seem to be promising future generations. We must make haste, then, to incorporate these ugly, tragic figures within our understanding of the world, and must be intelligent in using them to get the machinery of global decision making start to turn.