New York’s air is more harmful to kids who exercise

Black carbon pollution is reducing the health benefits of physical activity.

CREDIT: AP/Bullit Marquez
CREDIT: AP/Bullit Marquez

Children who exercise in New York City face greater exposure to toxic black carbon than their less active peers — diminishing the benefits of physical activity, according to a new Columbia University study.

Regular exercise in children has long been associated with good health. Exercise helps control weight, strengthens bones and muscles, and even boosts mental health. Physical activity has also been found to reduce airway inflammation, which makes breathing difficult and is associated with asthma.

But according to the study published Wednesday, black carbon exposure may be offsetting the benefits exercise has on children’s respiratory systems.

“Physical activity could be good for the lungs and may reduce inflammation in the lungs. However, children that have very high pollution exposure might not see that benefit,” lead author Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Black carbon is a greenhouse gas, and a form of particulate matter pollution formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Like all particulate matter pollution, black carbon is associated with a broad range of human health effects, including respiratory and cardiovascular harms, as well as premature death.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups, children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution — and climate change. Not only are they still developing, children are also poised to be exposed longer to the cumulative damage that the deteriorating environment brings.

In New York, researchers found that active children were exposed to 25 percent greater concentrations of black carbon compared to non-active children. Active children were considered to be those that do at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity daily, at least three days a week, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To reach their conclusions, researchers evaluated 129 children, ranging from 9 to 14 years old. Participants wore carbon detecting vests, as well as wrist motion detectors to measure their activity, over a period of six days. Nearly 60 percent of children were considered active.

The children, who were all of African American and Dominican heritage from the Bronx and Northern Manhattan, were then tested daily for a marker that shows airway inflammation.

Researchers theorize that increased exposure stems from the accelerated respiratory rates that physical activity induces. In addition, living in urban environments where exercise may happen near traffic and its related air pollution could also play a role, according to the study.

Transportation is now responsible for more emissions than any other sector in the United States.

However, researchers observed a stronger connection between exercise and and black carbon exposure during winter months, a time when children don’t spend as much time outside. Particulate matter concentrations are reportedly higher indoors than outdoors, especially during the cold weather months, according to the report. Such finding suggests that exposure to black carbon is happening inside the home, too.

“Hopefully, with our ongoing work we will be able to discern if greater activity and pollution exposure combinations occur indoors or outdoors, which will help us better inform families of how to remain active and healthy,” said Lovinsky-Desir. She noted it’s possible that children in other more air-polluted megacities are facing the same issues, but said more research is needed.

The report comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) and others work to raise the issue of the staggering effects of air pollution worldwide. Just this week WHO and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition launched a campaign to encourage cities to protect the public from air pollution.

The campaign includes a website that allows users to look up their city and learn about its air quality. The campaign is also gathering signatures to demonstrate public support for policy action at a global meeting of mayors in Mexico City in December, the C40 Mayor’s Conference.

About 5.5 million people died in 2013 because of air pollution, according to the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study published earlier this year. This means roughly 10 percent of all 55 million deaths worldwide were linked to air pollution.