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Air Pollution May Be Worse on Obese Kids

WebMD Health News

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.

The researchers found that children exposed to nitrogen dioxide -- an irritant that is found in car exhaust -- had a drop in lung function. Obese kids exposed on one day had an 11% dip in lung function the following day, while lean youngsters exposed to the same levels of the pollutant had only a 2% drop in lung function.

The more obese the child, the greater the effects of air pollution on lung function, says Luttmann-Gibson. "Any decline in lung function is bad, and obesity makes it even worse."

Luttmann-Gibson says she suspects that air pollution and obesity pack a double whammy to the airways. Researchers know that chemicals relating to inflammation in the body are elevated in obese persons, she explains. "And air pollution increases inflammation in the airways. Being obese is setting you up to be more susceptible to the inflammatory effects of air pollution."

And that, researchers say, may mean that an increased risk of asthma should be added to the list of obesity-related health conditions.

Peden tells WebMD, "If obesity is resulting in more inflammation, the risk of developing asthma might be further increased, too."

Although further study is needed to prove the association, it's a link many doctors already suspect, Peden says. "It's intriguing, a new and exciting area of interest."

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