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Children exposed to air pollution, such as wildfire smoke and car exhaust, for as little as one day may be doomed to higher rates of heart disease and other ailments in adulthood, according to a new Stanford-led study. The analysis, published in Nature Scientific Reports, is the first of its kind to investigate air pollution’s effects at the single cell level and to simultaneously focus on both the cardiovascular and immune systems in children.

The researchers studied a predominantly Hispanic group of children ages 6-8 in Fresno, a city beset with some of the country’s highest air pollution levels due to industrial agriculture and wildfires, among other sources. When air pollution exposure data was combined with responses to health and demographics questionnaires, blood pressure readings and blood samples, the results began to paint a troubling picture.

“I think this is compelling enough for a pediatrician to say that we have evidence air pollution causes changes in the immune and cardiovascular system associated not only with asthma and respiratory diseases, as has been shown before,” said study lead author Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research.

The researchers also found that air pollution exposure correlates with an increase in monocytes, white blood cells that play a key role in the buildup of plaques in arteries, and could possibly predispose children to heart disease in adulthood.

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