Road traffic air pollution putting unborn babies' health at risk, study warns

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'When exercising it's best to avoid highly-polluted areas, swapping them for green spaces or even back streets where pollution is lower.

For the study, researchers at Imperial College London and Duke University recruited 199 volunteers aged 60 and older.

They walked for two hours a day at one of two places in London, a quiet area in Hyde Park devoid of vehicles or along busy Oxford Street, which teems with cars.

Physical measurements were taken before and after the walks to show the effects of the exercise on cardiovascular health, including measurements of lung volume exhaled, blood pressure, and the degree to which the blood vessels could expand.

Air pollution levels were monitored before and during their walk, and each participant's lung capacity and arterial stiffness was measured before and after.

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"About 17 million babies worldwide live in areas where outdoor air pollution is six times the recommended limit, and their brain development is at risk, the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) said on Wednesday..."

The researchers found levels of pollution - including fine particulate matter, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide - were significantly higher on Oxford Street compared to Hyde Park.

The participants were randomly assigned to walk around either Oxford Street or Hyde Park. They also point out that there was no resting control group, so they can't be sure that walking contributed to the changes in lung function and arterial stiffness, although previous studies have shown that walking improves arterial stiffness. They were either healthy, had stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or stable ischemic heart disease.

"These findings are important as for many people, such as the elderly or those with chronic disease, very often the only exercise they can do is to walk", said senior author Fan Chung, Professor of Respiratory Medicine and Head of Experimental Studies Medicine at National Heart & Lung Institute at Imperial College London. And while the arteries of those walking in the park became 24 per cent less stiff, they improved by just 4.6 per cent for people on Oxford Street.

Even short-term (2 hour) exposure to air pollution appears to thwart the benefits of walking on the heart and lungs among older adults.

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Interestingly, the study found that the volunteers with heart disease who were being treated with medication were less negatively affected by the pollution. It involved, for example, a small number of participants, all of who were from the London area. A study in younger people should be done, he said.

"Exercise is crucial in reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke, but it seems unsafe levels of air pollution could be erasing these benefits in older adults".

The authors add that it is possible that stress could account for some of the physiological differences seen between the two settings, with the increased noise and activity of Oxford Street having an effect.

But it can be hard to think about what the pollution is doing to our health with so many other things to worry about. "But for those living in inner cities, this may be hard to do, and there may be a cost associated with it as they have to travel further away from where they live or work". "Any policies aimed at reducing road traffic pollution in urban environments could therefore help to reduce the health impact on unborn babies and their life-long disease risk".

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