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Columbia team organizes available scientific evidence on the effects of air pollution on children’s health

Researchers at Columbia University, with colleagues at Boston University and Abt Associates, have identified concentration-response (C-R) functions for a number of adverse health outcomes in children associated with air pollutants largely from fossil fuel combustion. A paper on their work is published in journal Environmental Research.

The study, led by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH), organized the available scientific evidence on the effects of air pollution on children’s health. The paper is the first comprehensive review of the associations between various fossil fuel combustion pollutants and multiple health effects in children in the context of assessing the benefits of air pollution and climate change policies.

The researchers say their goal is to expand the kinds of health outcomes used in calculations of the health and economic benefits of implementing clean air and climate change policies which are largely limited to the effects of air pollution on premature deaths and other outcomes in adults.

The new paper aggregates research on outcomes, including adverse birth outcomes, cognitive and behavioral problems, and asthma incidence.

Policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions serve a dual purpose, both reducing air pollution and mitigating climate change, with sizable combined health and economic benefits. However, because only a few adverse outcomes in children have been considered, policymakers and the public have not yet seen the extent of the potential benefits of clean air and climate change policies, particularly for children.

—first author Frederica Perera, PhD, director of CCCEH and professor of Environmental Health Sciences

The researchers reviewed 205 peer-reviewed studies published between 1 January 2000 and 30 April 2018 which provided information on the relationship between the concentration of exposures to air pollutants and health outcomes.

The studies relate to fuel combustion by-products, including toxic air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). A table provides information on the risk of health outcomes for exposure by study, encompassing research on six continents.

The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 40% of the burden of environmentally related disease and about 90% of the burden of climate change is borne by children under five, although that age group constitutes only 10% of the global population. The direct health impacts in children of air pollution from fossil fuel combustion include adverse birth outcomes, impairment of cognitive and behavioral development, respiratory illness, and potentially childhood cancer.


  • F. Perera, A. Ashrafi, P. Kinney, D. Mills (2018) “Towards a Fuller Assessment of Benefits to Children’s Health of Reducing Air Pollution and Mitigating Climate Change Due to Fossil Fuel Combustion,” Environmental Research doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2018.12.016


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