Polluted city air can harm teenagers' hearts

Polluted cities might harm teenagers’ hearts: Study warns of dangers of dirty air in cities like London

  • Experts tracked pollution levels around the homes of 3,200 children in London   
  • Researchers then took pressure readings of the same children three years later 
  • Children exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 pollution had higher blood pressure 

Air pollution could raise teenagers’ risk of developing high blood pressure in later life, with girls particularly at risk.

Scientists led by Kings College London analysed pollution levels around the homes of more than 3,200 children aged 11 to 13, then took pressure readings of the same children three years later.

Researchers discovered that children exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 pollution – which is most commonly found in car fumes – had higher blood pressure.

This higher pressure could lead to a clinical diagnosis of high blood pressure – hypertension – when they grow up, and consequently a greater risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Strikingly, the blood pressure rise linked to pollution was more than twice as high for girls compared to boys.

Scientists analysed pollution levels around the homes of more than 3,200 children aged 11 to 13 in London, then took pressure readings of the same children three years later (pictured, a shot of central London in 2022, on a day when a pollution warning was issued)

That is because girls typically get less exercise than boys, and exercise is healthy for blood pressure, experts believe.

When children inhale dirty air, the pollution particles get into their bloodstream and can damage the lining of blood vessels, making them harder and less elastic.

Children’s hearts then have to pump harder to force blood through the blood vessels, so that they have higher blood pressure.

READ MORE: Given the chop! Sadiq Khan effectively bans wood burners in new and refurbished London homes under new air quality rules

Professor Seeromanie Harding, senior author of the study, said: ‘More than one million under-18s live in neighbourhoods where air pollution is higher than the recommended health standards.

‘Air pollution is an avoidable cause of higher blood pressure, which will increase the number of heart attacks and strokes when these children reach adulthood.

‘These findings need to be acted upon, and air quality must be improved for children, which would reap huge benefits for society.’

The study looked at the air quality, mainly from road pollution, within a 20-metre (65-foot) area around the homes of 3,284 children in London.

Pollution particles are measured in micrograms per cubic metre of air.

For every one microgram increase in PM2.5 pollution, which comes mainly from traffic but also from building materials, boys were found to have a systolic blood pressure reading 0.57 points higher.

Girls’ systolic blood pressure, which is the number showing the blood pressure in arteries when the heart beats, was 1.34 points higher.

Every one point increase in systolic blood pressure among teenage girls could lead to four per cent more of them dying from cardiovascular disease as adults, evidence suggests.

Researchers found children exposed to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, which mainly comes from diesel fumes, had lower blood pressure.

This finding was unexpected but the study authors caution that it does not mean children’s risk of cardiovascular disease is lower as a result.

While the effect of air pollution on adult blood pressure is well known, previous evidence on how this affects children has been mixed and mainly relied on studies in China, which is very polluted.

The new study, published in the journal Plos One and involving children from 51 London schools, found teenagers from ethnic minority groups were exposed to higher average annual levels of pollution at home than white teenagers in the UK, but the impact of pollutants on blood pressure did not vary according to ethnicity.

Dr Alexis Karamanos, lead author of the study, said: ‘Further studies following the same adolescents over time in different socio-economic contexts are needed to understand whether and how exposure to higher pollutant concentrations may affect differently the cardiovascular health of children and adolescents.’


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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