While sitting with friends at a café in Manhattan recently, we watched a family of four walk in and take their seats. A toddler was holding his dad’s hand and the mom was carrying an infant in a sling. Since we all grew up a safe distance outside the city, these scenes always provoke a conversation about our future families and whether or not we’d ever raise children in the city. While they’d certainly be exposed to a wider culture than most kids from other parts of the country, they’d also be exposed to more negativity and danger. In many ways, the concept of danger depends on the level of independence a parent gives a child. For example, a child that walks to and from school on his own is in more danger than one who is escorted there by a parent or a nanny. However, during this most recent conversation, I wondered how the infant was affected by the large levels of pollution in the air. I have researched car pollution’s effect on pregnant women, but I hadn’t learned anything about its effects on a baby’s lungs. As you might suspect, the results are not good.

Babies who are exposed to high levels of car pollution before age two will have more respiratory problems than those who are not. Of course, many babies are raised in the heart of cities with no real problems, but parents raising children in these areas should be aware that their kids are not necessarily immune. According to a recent study, newborns younger than two months can actually suffer from respiratory death if exposed to high levels of air toxins created by cars. However, the toxins were highly concentrated in this study, and this is not likely unless your baby is abnormally close to an exhaust pipe, which is a bigger problem to begin with. As the baby grows, the likelihood that he will have respiratory illness, chronic cough, asthma, and reduced lung function increases from exposure to pollution.

Though it’s disconcerting, it’s no reason to move out of your beloved city. Your child will be fine as long as he is not exposed to unnecessary levels. If you live on the ground level in front of a busy street, don’t keep the windows open. Also, regular checkups by his pediatrician will keep him safer and make you feel better about your urban infant.

Source: Beate Ritz et al: Air Pollution Impacts on Infants and Children. UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability 2013

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