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The link between air pollution and respiratory diseases is well-established, but the United Nations Children's Fund, in a report on Tuesday, said there is a growing body of scientific research which shows that air pollution can permanently damage a child's brain.
The findings come at a time when India, particularly in the north, is facing a serious crisis due to rising levels of pollution. Last month, Delhi schools had to be shut temporarily to reduce children's exposure to pollutants that had enveloped the capital.
The Unicef report also said that South Asia had the largest proportion of babies living in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits (10 micrograms per cubic metre).
The Unicef report, titled "Danger in the air", explains that brain damage can happen through several mechanisms. First, it stated, particulate matters can cause neuro-inflammation by damaging the blood-brain barrier - a thin, delicate membrane that protects the brain from toxic substances.
Second, exposure to specific air pollutant particles, such as magnetite, can lead to oxidative stress which is often the cause of neurodegenerative diseases. Quoting multiple studies, the UN body said polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons commonly found in areas of high automobile traffic contribute to a loss of or damage to white matter in the brain. White matter is important for continued learning and development. "Pollutants can permanently damage their developing brains," Unicef executive director Anthony Lake said.
The latest analysis of multiple researches states that pollutants can cross the placenta and affect the developing brain of a foetus. "A young child's brain is especially vulnerable because it can be damaged by a smaller dose of toxic chemicals. Children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because their physical defences and immunities are not fully developed', Unicef said.
It advised parents to reduce children's exposure to pollutants by making it feasible for them to travel during times of the day when air pollution is lower.
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