There are many ways air pollution can impact our well being, but recent studies show a direct connection between poor air quality and asthma and obesity in children.

It’s no secret that air pollution can cause all sorts of health problems. But a recent study has shown just how damaging it can be to our children.

Studies have shown that air pollution can cause asthma in children, among other health problems. Linking this to the childhood obesity epidemic is a recent report in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine by Frank Gilliland, MD, professor of preventative medicine at Keck School of Medicine USC.

The study showed that children with asthma were 51 percent more likely to become obese over the next decade, compared with kids who did not have asthma.

“Early diagnosis and treatment of asthma may help prevent the childhood obesity epidemic,” said Dr. Gilliland, an established leading investigator in air pollution research, respiratory health and cancer epidemiology, and gene-environment interactions.

Exploring asthma and obesity in children

Obesity may be more common in children with asthma because respiratory problems may cause them to play and exercise less frequently. A well-known side effect of many asthma medications is weight gain.

“Part of the problem may be a vicious cycle where asthma and obesity negatively affect each other,” Dr. Gilliland said. “Our results also suggest that asthma inhalers may help prevent obesity in children. Although this observation warrants further study, it is interesting that the correlation exists irrespective of physical activity and other asthma medication use.”

Though it has been difficult to link asthma directly to obesity in children in the past, research has drawn the two closer together. As one of the largest and most detailed studies of long-term effects of air pollution on the respiratory and metabolic health of children, USC’s Children’s Health Study looked at two decades worth of data and found that air pollution increases obesity, that children’s lungs grow stronger as air quality improves and that fewer children in Southern California have bronchitis as a result of decreasing pollution levels in the region.

“Children who have asthma are often overweight or obese, but the scientific literature has not been able to say asthma causes obesity,” said Zhanghua Chen, research associate of environmental health at the Keck School of Medicine. “Our study and that of others support the finding that having asthma in early childhood may lead to increased risk of childhood obesity.”

According to Dr. Gilliland, elevated asthma and obesity may contribute to the development of other metabolic diseases, including prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes in later life.

“If people become less active and overweight when they are younger, then they develop diabetes sooner,” confirmed Anne L. Peters, MD, director of the USC Westside Center for Diabetes at Keck Medicine of USC.

Protecting children from air pollution

Here are some effective ways to save your children from the possible damages of exposure to polluted air:

  • Common sense dictates to limit your child’s outdoor exercise time when pollution levels are high. You can get a reliable air quality forecast by visiting airnow.gov.
  • Use energy-efficient lighting and appliances. Remember to turn off appliances and lights when you’re not using them. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment can be heavy pollutants, so it is a good idea to use hand-powered or electric ones instead.
  • Fix leaky air-conditioner and refrigeration systems, and always follow eco-friendly ways to dispose of paint, solvents and pesticides.
  • Stop exposure to second-hand smoke by asking people not to smoke in your house or yard.
  • Schools often have many sources of air pollutants, such as idling buses, locker rooms, and heating and ventilation systems. You can find out ways to encourage schools to get rid of their pollutants here: EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit.
  • It’s a good idea to get involved on a grassroots level to battle air pollution with your community. You can find out more solutions to this problem by visiting the American Lung Association.

By Ramin Zahed

Looking for a primary care physician who offers a holistic approach to your care? Primary care providers at Keck Medicine of USC will approach your medical concerns in the context of your physical, emotional and social environment. If you are local to Southern California and in search of a primary care physician, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.