The ten-year program, led by University of Southern
California researchers, has been tracking the lung health
of about 3,000 middle school children from 12 communities
since 1993. Children are especially vulnerable to pollution
damage because their lungs are still developing, because
their airways are smaller and, ironically, because they
spend so much time playing and exercising outside.
The main irritant in the most polluted areas seems to be
the fine particles and acid vapors of nitrogen dioxide from
motor vehicle exhaust, industrial plant emissions and the
burning of fossil fuels. "Interestingly, the areas are all
currently meeting EPA standards, but those standards may
not be stringent enough," suggests Jim Gauderman, Ph.D,
lead author of the study.
The long-term effects of pollution on lung capacity are
uncertain, but those children with lowered lung function
may grow up with weaker or smaller lungs; and may be more
vulnerable to respiratory diseases like pneumonia or
bronchitis in their 60s and 70s. People living in polluted
areas across the country should try to limit their exposure
to air pollution, and they should increase their intake of
antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, which protect
against oxidative lung damage.