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New studies from Harvard Chan School have found that long-term exposure to even low levels of air pollution, like those found near highways or busy city streets affects our health.

It may lower a woman’s chances of conceiving and may increase children’s risk of developing asthma. In some cases, it can also cause cognitive and behavioral problems in children.

Why it matters: Past studies have offered plenty of evidence that air pollution triggers symptoms in asthmatic children, but until now, it has been unclear if low-level exposure increases their overall health risk. For pregnant women or women going through in vitro fertilization, the effects of air quality were also largely unknown.

The background: The studies looked at exposure to nitrogen dioxide (a chemical produced in car and and truck exhaust), and fine particulate matter (PM), tiny airborne particles that can reach far into the lungs. PM is created by fossil fuel combustion in traffic, power plants, and other sources of pollution. The researchers focused on exposure to soot, a type of PM also called “black carbon,” in women undergoing IVF, and in women who were already pregnant. The scientists also measured residential distance to major roadways and traffic density at birth and in mid-childhood.

Climate Context: As climate change makes global temperatures warmer, existing air pollution may become more harmful to health. Heat and UV rays from sunlight can effectively “cook” particulates and nitrous oxides from exhaust, causing chemical reactions that form ozone and smog. A 2016 paper from Harvard Chan School found a rise in mortality rate for people exposed to both particles and high temperatures in 207 U.S. cities.

Resources:

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Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH

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A leading advocate for smart, successful strategies to protect public health and the environment for more than 30 years.

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