Childhood is a particularly sensitive time when it comes to pollution exposure. Allison Larr and Matthew Neidell focus on two atmospheric pollutants—ozone and particulate matter—that can harm children’s health in many ways. Ozone irritates the lungs, causing various respiratory symptoms; it can also damage the lung lining or aggravate lung diseases such as asthma. Particulate matter affects both the lungs and the heart; like ozone, it can cause respiratory symptoms and aggravate asthma, but it can also induce heart attacks or irregular heartbeat. Beyond those immediate effects, childhood exposure to ozone and particulate matter can do long-term damage to children’s health and reduce their ability to accumulate human capital. For example, frequent asthma attacks can cut into school attendance and academic performance, ultimately detracting from children’s ability to earn a good living as adults.
Fossil fuel-burning power plants, which are a major source of carbon emissions that cause climate change, also emit high levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which play a role in forming ozone and particulate matter. We might assume, then, that policies to reduce climate change by cutting back on carbon emissions from power plants would automatically cut back on these other types of pollution. But it’s not quite that simple—atmospheric concentrations of ozone and particulate matter are linked to heat and other climatic variables through complex, nonlinear relationships.
Taking those complex relationships into account and examining a variety of ways to model future air quality, Larr and Neidell project that policies to mitigate the emissions that produce climate change would indeed significantly reduce atmospheric ozone and particulate matter—at least in the United States, which has the most-complete data available to make such calculations. The drop in pollution would in turn produce significant improvements in child wellbeing. Children would be more likely to survive into adulthood, experience healthier childhoods, have more human capital, and be more productive as adults.