Growing up on a busy road could stunt a child’s lung development by up to 14%, research suggests.
Scientists from King’s College London looked at the health of people living in high-pollution areas, like parts of London, Birmingham and Liverpool.
They found residing within 50m (164ft) of a major road affects the growth of a child’s lungs, putting them at risk of infections like bronchitis.
Among adults, it could raise the risk of lung cancer by up to 10%, the results show.
Known as particulate matter (PM), microscopic substances are released in vehicle emissions and then “float” unseen in the atmosphere.
Particles smaller than 2.5μm (PM2.5) - 400th of a millimetre - are thought to be particularly damaging due to them getting “lodged” in the lungs.
More than 90% of youngsters are said to be exposed to PM2.5 levels above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) safe limit.
This has been linked to lung damage, reduced organ growth and pneumonia.
In later life, exposed youngsters may be more at risk of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
To learn more about the risks, the King’s scientists looked at the prevalence of 13 health complications in the residents of 13 cities in the UK and Poland.
The complications included everything from chest infections to hospitalisation and premature death.
READ MORE: Protecting yourself against air pollution
Perhaps surprisingly, Oxford came off worst in the UK, with roadside air pollution raising a child’s risk of stunted lung growth by around 14% compared to the general population.
This was followed by 13% in London, 8% in Birmingham, 5% in Liverpool, 4% in Southampton and 3% in Nottingham.
Cutting air pollution by a fifth would save thousands of children across the country from bronchitis, infection of the airways, the scientists claim.
And it would cut lung-cancer cases by up to 7.6%, they added.
“Air pollution makes us, and especially our children, sick from cradle to the grave, but is often invisible,” said Dr Rob Hughes, senior fellow at the Clean Air Fund, said.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation - which was involved in the study - warns the “most vulnerable are hit hardest”.
“It seems as if every day we see more and more evidence of the terrible health effects air pollution is having on our lungs,” she told the BBC.
“We know air pollution stunts our children's still-developing lungs and those with a lung condition can find their symptoms are made far worse by poor air quality.”
Dr Woods is calling on the government to commit to the WHO’s clean air targets, while Dr Hughes urged for the “public health crisis” to be a “priority” for “all political parties” ahead of the UK’s upcoming election.
The scientists want to see a national network of Clean Air Zones across the UK.
This is after air pollution in central London reportedly fell by nearly a third (29%) since the introduction of a new traffic charging zone.