By now, every parent knows that they should never leave their children in a hot car, even for a few minutes. However, according to the Daily Mail, new research by a leading scientific researcher suggests that children riding in the car is a danger in itself, despite the temperature, and for a very unexpected reason: air pollution.
Professor Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the UK government and honorary science adviser for the British Lung Foundation, says that cars are “boxes collecting toxic gases” for little ones whose brains and bodies are still developing. In 2014, American consumers purchased 489,612 clean diesel cars, but King says even cars with lower levels of pollution pose a risk.
“Children sitting in the backseat of vehicles are likely to be exposed to dangerous levels [of air pollution],” King wrote in The Guardian. “You may be driving a cleaner vehicle but your children are sitting in a box collecting toxic gases from all the vehicles around you.”
This news may come as a shock to the many parents who double as chauffeurs for their children — shuttling them between daycare, school, and other activities. In many American families, kids and parents alike spend significant time in vehicles.
King says younger children whose lungs haven’t yet fully developed have the biggest risk for having their growth stunted, or worse, leaving them with permanent damage to their lungs. The average child catches between six and 10 colds a year, but damaged lungs can compromise children’s already fragile immune systems, making them more prone to a myriad of other illnesses.
And according to current data, the U.S. healthcare system is already stretched thin; the country needs about 52,000 more primary care physicians by 2025 to meet our current healthcare needs, and studies like these are crucial in making this world a safer and healthier place for its future inhabitants.
For any skeptics who feel as though they can simply close their car windows for pollution protection, think again. King says that even with all the windows closed, vehicles still have a consistent flow of air, which enters through a large duct in front of the vehicle.
“In heavy traffic, this duct would be sucking up the polluted air from the car in front. Of course, the amounts differ depending on the make and model of the car,” said King.
King feels as though the solution lies in using other methods of transportation as often as possible. Southampton University Professor Stephen Holgate, an asthma expert and chair of the Royal College of Physicians Working Party on Air Pollution, agrees, saying that there is now enough evidence to prove that walking and cycling are less dangerous than vehicular travel, in terms of pollution exposure.
“[Pollution] is nine to 12 times higher inside the car than outside,” said Holgate. “Children are in the back of the car and often the car has the fans on, just sucking the fresh exhaust coming out of the car or lorry in front of them straight into the back of the car.”
Holgate also noted that he understands the parental confusion about the perceived lower pollution levels inside of vehicles than outside. He says of alternative transportation methods, “there are multiple benefits to be gained. But parents are confused at the moment because they think there is less pollution in cars than outside, which is not the case.”
Ultimately, both King and Holgate feel as though parents need to be aware of the effects of both car travel and air pollution on children and take them seriously.
“Air pollution hasn’t been taken seriously,” said Holgate. “There is a very strange situation where the government has to make laws by being taken to court repeatedly. In my view it is really quite appalling that we haven’t started to deal with this properly and put children’s and adults’ health first.”