What Pollution Is Doing to Our Children’s Brains, and Why It’s Time to Act

By Suhela Kapoor, PhD

India’s large youth population is termed a demographic dividend and is much flaunted as India’s key arsenal to face a globalized future. But how many of these young people are indeed physically and mentally equipped to take on the challenges of an empowered democracy is a disturbing question.

India has more than 65 million children who fail to reach their developmental potential (out of 200 million in developing nations worldwide). Mental, behavioral and neurological disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or birth defects such as Down syndrome, are on the rise.

What explains the high rates of development disorders in India? Is it better diagnostic criteria or population-wide genetic changes? Perhaps both, but the alarming increase has another significant contributor.

Scientists and researchers working in public health such as myself have long known that the environment is a powerful determinant of children’s health. Heightened susceptibility to respiratory ailments leads to more than 16% deaths.

Simply living in a crowded space and being exposed to mould can trigger fatal infections in the young. Diarrhoea deaths, arising as a result of lack of clean drinking water and poor sanitation, are particularly shocking as they are all preventable.

Some exposures are particularly toxic to the human brain. Exposure to air pollutants, including to tobacco smoke, affects foetal brain development. Exposure to pesticides may induce Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions later in life. Exposure to lead, as in paints and fuel, is linked with ADHD and intellectual disability.

There is no nice way to put it: this ‘chemical brain drain’ portends a pessimistic outlook for India’s future.

As part of a TATA Research Fellowship, I have been conducting a landscape study of more than 500 children living in rural settings to see how indoor air pollution affects a child’s neurological development.

The results are dismaying. The children in my study face severe environmental stressors. Use of biomass fuels in traditional cooking stoves in ill-ventilated kitchens with no chimneys; in-door smoking of hookahs; sanitation challenges and exposure to pesticides exacerbate the situation.

The conditions are in fact worse in urban settings with much more ambient air pollution, lack of green spaces, sanitation challenges in congested urban slums, along with many other social stressors.

So what is the way forward? Of course governmental policies need to be stringently implemented. But most importantly, communities need to actively participate to reduce exposure to toxins.

We need to convert our homes into greener spaces, conserve water, cherish the trees, reduce our plastic and chemical usage, and make sure our cultural dogmas don’t come in the way of our progress. It’s now or never.

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Suhela Kapoor, PhD, is a TATA Trusts Fellow at the Centre of Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India. She is based in Delhi.

Lead image: Mindy Olson on Unsplash. First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine