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Growing up with air pollution can have consequences that persist throughout life

New research has found that exposure to high levels of PM2.5 in early life is associated with higher mortality, and especially cancer-related mortality, particularly between the ages of 65 and 75.

The research, titled Early life PM2.5 exposure, childhood cognitive ability and mortality between age 11 and 86, was carried out by a team from the University of Edinburgh who analysed the records of nearly 3,000 people who were born in Scotland in 1936.

The researchers estimated historic air pollution levels using atmospheric chemistry models and matched this to the 1939 home address of each participant when they were three years-old.

The analysis also used results from a national cognitive ability test taken by each participant when they were 11, and national death records from 1947 to 2022.

The research revealed that people who were exposed to high levels of air pollution at the age of three were more likely to die between the ages of 65 and 86 than those subjected to low levels. Such exposure also increased the chances of dying from cancer, especially from lung cancer in women.

Over the 75-year period, 1,608 of the participants died and it was seen that exposure to higher levels of  PM2.5 increased the risk of dying between the ages of 65 and 86 by up to 5%. Women’s risk of dying from lung cancer was increased by 11%.

In men, preliminary findings suggest that early exposure could be linked to an increased risk dying from neurodegenerative disorders in older adulthood.

It was also found that children who were exposed to higher air pollution levels tended to score lower in the cognitive ability test. These skills are important for achieving better educational outcomes and higher socioeconomic status, which are ultimately linked to living longer, the team says.

Professor Chris Dibben, Director of the Longitudinal Studies Centre Scotland, at the University of Edinburgh said: ‘We are lucky, in Scotland, to have an increasing number of studies following people from childhood to old age. This is helping us to better understand what type of environments we need now to support healthy ageing in the future.’

Dr Gergö Baranyi, School of GeoSciences said: ‘It is striking to see that children growing up in polluted areas can have consequences that persist throughout their entire life. These findings suggest that the effects of air pollution on our health can endure for decades, even after significant efforts are made to reduce pollution levels’

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