LOS ANGELES, July 1 (UPI) -- Environmental pollution -- such as vehicle emissions, ozone and nitrogen dioxide -- is damaging children's lungs, which could lead to long-term health effects, researchers reported Monday.
"Day-in and day-out levels of air pollutants, even though they many times fall below the (Environmental Protection Agency's) standards, are probably not healthful," lead study author W. James Gauderman, an associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, told United Press International.
"Even at the current levels, we're seeing some adverse health effects," he said, noting pollution's effect on children's lungs is "similar to second-hand smoke in the house."
The findings are particularly troubling, Gauderman said, because "low lung function is a very strong risk factor for later life health effects, such as chronic pulmonary disease and even death. The lung is a sensitive organ; it can only take so much."
He added, "If the problems in lung function persist into adulthood, we'll have ... adult respiratory effects at earlier ages or maybe even more severe effects."
Dana Best, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., agreed, saying the findings suggest pollution is not just making people's asthma worse, it may also be causing "perhaps permanent lung function changes."
"This is a critical period in children's lives when their lungs are developing and that may set them up for lung problems for the rest of their lives," she told UPI.
As part of the ongoing Children's Health Study, Gauderman's team followed more than 1,600 fourth-graders in 12 Southern California communities for four years beginning in 1996. The researchers tested lung function each year from the age of 10 to 14 years by using a device that measures how much and how fast kids could blow out air.
Normal lung function increases each year until adulthood, but in this study, children in the most polluted communities had lung function 11 percent lower than that of children in the purest communities. Kids who spent more time outdoors were more likely to have decreased lung function. The findings held true regardless of race, asthma status or gender.
Various pollutants -- acid vapors, nitrogen dioxide, fine airborne particles called PM2.5, carbon and ozone -- were implicated because the higher the levels of these chemicals in a particular community, the lower the children's lung function, Gauderman said.
The new research confirms the findings of a previous study, which also followed fourth-graders over four years and found similar results, Gauderman said. He noted the results should hold true for other parts of the world where these pollutants are found.
"This argues for continuing to keep the pressure on regulation (because) we have a population out there, namely kids, who are susceptible." Regulation of allowable limits of pollution is really the only solution, Gauderman said, because there is no practical way kids could escape exposure to pollution.
Gauderman said although he tries to stay out of politics, he hopes the EPA will use the study as part of the agency's decision-making.
Regulation "really is the solution," Best said. "We need to work towards improved standards for air pollution and improved enforcement of air pollution standards."
On a more positive note, Gauderman said it appears as if lung function can improve if kids are relocated to a healthier environment. He has conducted research following children who have left Southern California and "it does look like they recover some of their lung function," he said, adding his team plans to conduct additional studies to look at kids in early adulthood and see if the lung function deficits persist.
The research appears in the July 1 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
(Reported by Steve Mitchell, UPI medical correspondent, in Washington)