Death rates for young children are related seasonal levels of particulate air pollution and cold temperatures

Seasonal variations in death rates for young children are related to high levels of particulate air pollution and cold temperatures during the winter months, and to high levels of particulate pollutants and nitrogen dioxide during the summer months, according to a Spanish study in the August Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Led by Dr. J. Díaz of Universidad Autónomo de Madrid, the researchers reviewed weather and pollution monitoring data for Madrid from 1986 through 1997. They sought to determine how these environmental factors affect death rates among children less than 10 years old.

The results showed significant interactions between daily temperatures and levels of specific air pollutants. In the wintertime, child mortality rates rose a few days after cold days with high levels of particulate air pollutants ("total suspended particles," or TSP). Death rates increased dramatically after cold days with temperatures less than 43° Fahrenheit (6° Celsius).

In the summertime, child mortality rates rose also along with TSP levels, as well as with levels of nitrogen oxide pollutants. Most of the temperature- and pollution-related increases in death rates were limited to children between 1 and 5 years old.

The effects of temperature and pollution in children differed from those in adults, based on previous studies from Madrid. For adults, death rates increased on both the warmest and coldest days, whereas temperature-related risks in children were limited to cold days.

In contrast, the effects of pollution were greater in children. Child mortality rates were especially high on days with TSP levels of more than 100 micrograms per square meter, which occur mostly during the winter. Children's airways are narrower, meaning that they are exposed to a higher concentration of pollutants with each breath. Children are also more likely to be outdoors and physically active on warm summer days when pollutant levels are high.

Recent years have seen "exceptionally abnormal" world weather patterns, including very cold winters on the east coast of North America and hot summers in Western Europe. These patterns have raised concerns about possible climate changes and their effects on human health. The study found no relationship between ozone levels high in the atmosphere—which have been linked to "global warming"—and child mortality rates.

However, the results provide new insights into how daily environmental conditions at ground level might affect health in infants and young children. High TSP levels are a hazard to children in both the winter and summer months, while temperature is a factor mainly on cold days. The public health policies needed to reduce the health dangers of pollution in infants and young children may not be the same as for older adults or the general population, the researchers conclude.

ACOEM, an international society of 6,000 occupational physicians and other healthcare professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.

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