Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health performed a study on children and obesity recently and found that obesity afflicts 17 percent of America’s children. In inner-city neighborhoods, this number is closer to 25 percent.
The study found that pollutants in the air contribute to obesity – especially a commonly found indoor pollutant in urban areas called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). PAH are released from burning coal, diesel, oil, and gas as well as organic substances like tobacco.
The Center has found that, prenatal exposure to PAH can affect IQ level as well be linked to attention problems in children. The pollutant is also a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor. The latter reason is why mood, growth, development, metabolism as well as reproduction processes are affected. Studies done on mice show that exposure to PAH causes fat gain. The chemical prevents the normal process by which fat cells shed lipids and shrink in size.
This study was primarily based in New York’s inner city neighbourhood. It takes into account the amount of public transport as well as the ‘walkability’ of the city. The researchers say that obesity is a disease with multiple factors and air pollution alone is not the culprit. However, lead researcher Dr. Rundle has said that:
“Obesity is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. For many people who don’t have the resources to buy healthy food or don’t have the time to exercise, prenatal exposure to air pollution may tip the scales, making them even more susceptible to obesity.”
Exposure to PAH is fairly easy to fix in urban areas, as the biggest source of PAH are trucks and buses. Building furnaces also contribute a considerable amount – cities therefore should try to switch to alternative fuels for these purposes. Also making cities more bike-friendly might play a role in reducing urban air pollution.
Community action groups in NYC that have taken diesel buses off the streets have improved air quality. Anti-idling rules will also help to reduce the amount of pollution from trucks. Air pollution is an often neglected, and indoor and urban air pollution especially do not receive much notice.
For many companies, pollution is part of the cost of doing business. Furthermore, in the absence of stringent pollution control laws, many do not feel an obligation to do anything about the amount of pollution that they produce. If there are stricter controls, then the consequences on public health will not be as severe. The issue of pollution control needs to assume more importance, because air quality is linked with health concerns. Not only does it cause respiratory illness, but now it appears that poor air quality is making children obese.
Image Credit: Wseigmund, Wikimedia Commons