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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Air Pollution May Be Worse on Obese Kids

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May 24, 2004 (Orlando, Fla.) - As the number of children defined as overweight and obese continues to rise, researchers say new studies now show that obese children are more susceptible to lung damage from air pollution than lean youngsters.

"Given the epidemic of obesity in children, it might be we're developing a population more vulnerable to pollution's negative effects on the airway," says Heike Luttmann-Gibson, PhD, statistician and research associate in the Environmental Epidemiology Program at Harvard School of Public Health.

When exposed to the same amount of pollution, obese boys and girls had more trouble breathing than kids of normal weight, she reports.

Obesity's Far-Reaching Health Effects

The findings offer one more reason to put overweight and obese youngsters on a diet and exercise program. Consider the facts:

  • The number of overweight and obese children has nearly tripled since the 1970s.
  • There has been a tenfold increase in the number of children with type 2 diabetes over the past five years. Once called 'adult-onset' diabetes, type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity and inactivity.

  • Overweight kids are more likely to become overweight adults, increasing their risk of obesity-related health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and bone fracture.

David B. Peden, MD, MS, professor of pediatrics and center director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says, "Being overweight clearly causes a lot of bad things to happen. But even a modest reduction in weight can have a big effect on a child's health, including [lung problems tied to] air pollution."

Problems Expand Along With Ballooning Waistlines

In the study, 611 fourth and fifth graders, who were participating in a larger study on the long-term effects of air pollution, were tested for lung function. About one in 10 was obese. Parents of the children helped fill out questionnaires asking about general and respiratory health.

After analyzing the information, the researchers showed that the effects of air pollution on lung function were two to five times stronger for obese children than for those of normal weight, Luttmann-Gibson reports.

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