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Air pollution linked to respiratory and ear infections in children

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Los Angeles is noted for its sunny climate, fine nearby beaches—and smog. A new study by European researchers has reported a link between air pollution and childhood infections: pneumonia and ear infections (otitis media). The findings were published in the January edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study authors note that respiratory infections are a leading reason for outpatient physician visits and hospitalizations among children. Although most infections are not serious and promptly resolve, episodes of severe or recurrent infection may require hospitalization or surgery. Young children are particularly susceptible to bacteria and viruses that attack the respiratory system as well as air pollution. Therefore, the researchers set out to examine the association between traffic-related air pollution and the following conditions: pneumonia, croup, and otitis media. The study was conducted at 10 European locations: Sweden, Italy, Germany (2), United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Spain (4).

The investigators compiled data from parents’ reports of physician-diagnosed pneumonia, otitis media, and croup during early childhood. The data were assessed in relation to annual average pollutant levels: nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter of various sizes, ranging from 2.5 or less micrometers to 10 micrometers. The researchers found that for pneumonia, the risk was significantly elevated for all pollutants except for particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less. No associations were found between air pollution and croup; however, an association was found between nitrous oxide and otitis media.

The investigators concluded that they had found consistent evidence for an association between air pollution and pneumonia in early childhood, as well as some evidence for an association with otitis media.

Take home message:
Air pollution can cause respiratory problems for individuals of all ages. People with underlying lung problems such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are at increased risk. If you live in a smoggy area, it would be prudent to relocate to an area with cleaner air. Air pollution tends to be highest near major highways and freeways, and lowest in coastal areas.