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Air pollution can affect children’s IQ, says physician

BY Vivian Chime


Tolullah Oni, a public health physician and a ‘clean air’ campaigner, says air pollution can reduce the intelligence quotient (IQ) in children and increase memory disorder in elderly people. 

In a recent interview with TheCable, Oni said breathing in bad air affects many organs in the human body and is a major cause of life-threatening illnesses.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to seven million people die yearly as a result of air pollution, while up to 99 percent of people worldwide breathe polluted air with the greater exposure being in low and middle income countries.

The world celebrated the third International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies on September 7.


Speaking on the theme, ‘The Air We Share’, Oni said air pollution is not only bad for health but also accelerates climate change.

“Air pollution affects a wide range of organs. Most people know that it increases the risk of lung conditions like asthma. But fewer people know that it also increases the risk of pneumonia (lung infections) especially in young children,” she said.

“It increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It also affects the IQ of children and increases dementia in the elderly. Studies have shown that exposure to air pollutants like PM2.5 in children is associated with lower academic performance in general and with lower performance IQ — which measures reasoning and problem-solving abilities — specifically.


“Also, studies have shown that greater exposure to air pollutants like PM2.5 and NO2 (mostly from vehicles) is associated with cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia.

“It is thought that this is most likely due to the indirect impact with pollutants entering the bloodstream and crossing into the brain as well as directly causing changes in the brain that are seen in persons with dementia.”

Oni also said young people who mostly make up Nigeria’s population are greatly affected by the high level of air pollution in the country, thereby putting the country’s economy at risk.

“Ninety-four percent of Nigerians breathe air that does not meet the World Health Organisation standards (compared to 72 percent on average in Sub-Saharan Africa in general). Half of Nigeria’s population is under 18 years old. So, we are placing the health of the wealth of the nation in jeopardy by not acting urgently,” the physician said.


“According to a report from UNICEF, Nigeria has the highest number of air pollution-related child pneumonia deaths in the world with 78 percent of air pollution-related pneumonia deaths among children under-five. That’s about 185 children under the age of five dying every day from pneumonia due to air pollution in Nigeria.

“This premature loss of life and illness also has significant economic costs. In Lagos state alone, according to a recent World Bank report, the economic costs of PM2.5 air pollution are estimated at US$1.2 to 2.3 billion per year, about two percent of GDP. This is unacceptable, especially given that these are largely preventable and resulting from man-made hazards.”

Oni, who recently organised a ‘clean air’ campaign tagged ‘Cityzens4CleanAir’ in Nigeria and other African countries, said she found that because air pollution is not visible to the natural eyes, people most times are not aware of the gravity of the situation.

She said to address the problem, proper monitoring and measuring of air quality is important in order to understand how air pollution impacts health.

“For this to happen, data from healthcare services will need to be integrated with air pollution data so that it is clear to see how spikes in air pollution manifest in hospitals. That kind of data integration would also help to assess the impact of new commercial activities on the air we breathe and on our health,” she said.

“The good news is that if we are able to effectively tackle air pollution, we will be both improving the population’s health and taking climate action. But we can’t change what we don’t measure. So, the very first thing we need to be doing better is measuring air pollution in detail.”


Meanwhile, according to the National Institute of Health, a mother’s exposure to urban air pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can adversely affect a child’s IQ.

Research, however, shows there is not yet a definitive and direct connection between air pollution and dementia, but evidence points towards an indirect cause.

Research by the Alzheimer’s Society also shows that the effect of air pollution on respiratory and cardiac health likely has a knock-on effect on brain health, increasing the risk of dementia.

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