UK Children’s Development Suffering Due to Dangerous Pollution Levels

A question we are often asked in clinic is “why are we seeing more and more cases of children with developmental difficulties?” There is not one simple answer for this. It is certainly true that numbers are rising as our awareness and knowledge of the difficulties improve. But we also continue to see higher numbers due to advancing changes in birthing practice and unfortunately higher rates of c-sections. Similarly, there is the belief that changing social attitudes towards women and pregnancy are leading to pregnant women unknowingly putting their baby through stressful situations with subsequent consequence and diet changes are also playing a large factor.

Most recently, pollutants are now being linked to such developmental difficulties. 

It is no secret that the air quality is poor in the UK for such a developed nation. Searching the web displays figures and worrying statistics about the UK’s, particularly London’s, failure at achieving a satisfactory air quality level.

The main reason for this failure is the Governments push after the 1997 Kyoto treaty, seeking to reduce global CO2 emissions, to change the UK car population from petrol to diesel. Several incentives have been provided, indeed many still are, to purchase diesel engines as they save the government from large penalty fines. However the affect this has had on air quality has been dramatic, as although Diesel engines produce far less CO2 emissions, their affect on air quality by the pollutants they emit is far worse then petrol engines. 

Nearing 20 years on, while medical advice has continued to warn against the affects on current populations, the view and incentives haven't changed. Mr Gardiner, the shadow environment minister, has since publicly stated: “there’s absolutely no question that the decision we took (to incentivise diesel) was the wrong decision” 

Mr Gardiner continues: “It was right to move away from vehicles that push out CO2, but the impact is a massive public health problem.”

Adding: “The real tragedy is after we set up the committee on the medical effects of air pollution and it reported back in 2010 we’ve had five years that this government has done nothing about it.”

In August 2014, Britain was being sued by the European Commission for breaching air pollution limits, because emissions from diesel vehicles were and continue to contribute to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year.

It is nearing 20 years since the increase in diesel engines was promoted and now increasing studies are showing large correlations between air pollutants and developmental difficulties. The most recent study linking air pollution to premature birth rates, conducted in California, USA and a global study linking pollutants to low birth weight. Both of these are known to be precursors for a child to have a higher chance of developing chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease later in life. But there is every chance that these are also contributing to higher rates of Dyslexia, ASD cases and other difficulties. 

Image credit: NYU Langone Medical Center

Image credit: NYU Langone Medical Center

There are many apps today that monitor pollution levels in London or where you live and while the government will be quick to point out that pollutant levels have dropped slightly in the last 20 years, there are many who counter this. This also does not mean that they are at what many medical professionals consider a satisfactory and safe level.  

In short unless you can move to a cleaner air, remote area, we should all be wary of activity levels during "rush hours" and in heavily congested traffic and industrial areas. Particularly those at higher risk, such as children, expectant mothers and the elderly. 


Further Reading:

Catherine Paddocks article on Pollution and Low birth weight

Marie Ellis' Air pollution and premature birth in the US