It's the defenseless children of the world that are bearing the bulk of environmentally-related diseases such as asthma that can be traced to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO estimates more than 40 percent of the burden of environmentally-related diseases and more than 88 percent of the burden of climate change is borne by children younger than 5 years old. In the United States, disorders such as asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are prevalent in children and have been increasing over time. Asthma has a prevalence of about 8 percent and ADHD has a prevalence of 10 percent. ADHD is the most commonly studied and diagnosed mental disorder in children and adolescents.

WHO said even disorders with lower prevalence such as autism represent a growing public health concern. Autism affects one in 60 U.S. children.

There is a monetary price to pay for the growth in these afflictions. A new study has, for the first time, quantified the cost of diseases caused by fossil fuel air pollution.

The study by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health is the first to compile the estimated per-case costs of six childhood health conditions linked to air pollution — estimates that can be incorporated into benefits assessments of air pollution regulations and climate change mitigation policies.

Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study reports case-specific monetary estimates for these six childhood health conditions: preterm birth, low birth weight, asthma, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and IQ reduction in children. Previous scientific evidence has shown the six are among the known or likely health consequences of prenatal and early childhood exposure to air pollution. Globally, 80 percent of air pollution can be linked to burning of coal, oil, diesel and gas.

"Impacts on children's health are generally under-represented in benefits assessments related to environmental pollution," study co-author Frederica Perera, professor of environmental health sciences and director of translational research at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health, said. "Policies to clean our air and address the serious and escalating problem of climate change will yield numerous benefits for children's health and for the financial health of families and our nation."

The study cited previously published estimates of health costs. It agrees $23,573 is being spent for childhood asthma not persisting into adulthood. A further $3.11 million is being spent for a case of autism with a concurrent intellectual disability. Researchers also provided an example of cumulative costs. About $267 million can be saved from a reduction by just one percent in the number of pre-term births in the U.S. attributable to particulate matter (PM) with a size of 2.5 microns, or PM2.5. PM is a measure of particulate matter, one of several harmful air pollutants.

The study prioritized monetary estimates that factored in both immediate medical costs and longer-term and broad societal costs. It warned its monetary figures are likely underestimates because it didn't adequately capture the long-term health and societal impacts such as effects over the full life course or losses in economic productivity.

A previous study published in 2014 by the same Columbia Mailman School of Public Health showed air quality can influence cognitive development en utero. The team that arrived at this conclusion previously found a correlation between polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and developmental delays, reduced IQ and attention problems in children of ages 3 to 6 years old. In this research, the Columbia researchers focused specifically on how PAHs might be connected to concentration and contribute to ADHD symptoms in children. PAHs are pollutants emitted in the air from burning fossil fuels like car exhaust or heating.

“This study should not come as a surprise," Dr. Sandy Newmark, founder of the Center for Pediatric Integrative Medicine in San Francisco, said. "Although there is a strong genetic component to ADHD, there is an equally strong environmental influence, and this influence begins with the prenatal environment."

"Other research has shown that ADHD incidence increases with exposure to pesticides and other environmental pollutants during childhood. The bottom line is that the developing brains of our children are highly susceptible to environmental influences of many kinds, and we need to continue to research these exposures and prevent damage whenever possible.”

Air pollution
In 2014, study found that air pollution from power plants that used fossil fuels caused nearly 16,000 premature deaths in the U.S. Pixabay