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Many of the same emissions that are polluting the air and hurting kids' development also are affecting the climate and influencing weather, forest health, agriculture and ocean fish.

Children's brains are amazing. They're one of the most sensitive organs in the world. When kids live in a healthy environment with clean air, their brains are healthier. It's as simple as that.COURTESY PHOTO - Joel Nigg

In my research on child development, I study the underlying causes of mental health and behavioral issues in kids. We study genetics as well as environmental effects like pollution. After noting the role of pollutants like heavy metals in our own studies, I became interested in greenhouse gas pollution because it is, well, pollution. Apart from the climate impacts, which are concerning enough, what does it do to health directly?

Children develop rapidly in early life — from conception and into early childhood, their brains adapt powerfully to their environment. When there are pollutants in the environment, it affects their brain development. Increasingly, we are now discovering that these effects include enhanced risk for developmental, mental and behavioral disorders. While not the sole cause, these contaminants do play a role. For example, environmental contaminants are linked with ADHD, and possibly also with autism.

Many of the same emissions that are polluting the air and hurting kids' development also are affecting the climate and influencing weather, forest health, agriculture and ocean fish. Pollution from factories, trucks and cars create mercury, ozone, particulate matter and carbon dioxide. In addition to hurting brain development, air pollution from fossil-fuel use increases heart attacks, strokes and lung disease like asthma. 

To the nearly half-million Oregonians with lung disease, the status quo for these pollution levels is unacceptable. That's especially true for the 71,000 kids with asthma, too many of whom wind up in emergency rooms.

The same things that can make an 8-year-old cough literally can stop an infant from breathing. If Oregon reduces this damaging pollution, we can protect both Oregon's climate and children's physical and mental health. When it comes to air pollution, weird weather, climate change and kids' health all appear to be inescapably connected.

I am, therefore, glad to know that the Oregon Legislature is working on an important bill for 2018 to limit greenhouse gas-related pollution from the largest polluters in the state and place a price on each ton of their emissions: The Clean Energy Jobs bill (SB 1070). The cap on emissions becomes more stringent over time to guarantee cleaner air. As a bonus, the bill also promises to create jobs by investing in clean energy solutions that reduce pollution, like cleaner transit options and electric vehicle infrastructure. It also supports home improvements that can keep pollution out — and save money on utility bills. 

It also makes sense from a fairness point of view to promote cleaner air, because families with lower incomes often are the most exposed to pollution, for example, living near busy roadways.  

I support strategies like the Clean Energy Jobs bill to protect our air for the next generation. Kids raised with healthy air learn better. With so many challenges to their development, it only makes sense to fix what we can. That will help them be better able to focus, and over time should reduce their problems with attention and self-regulation that are important for success in school. Healthier, more successful children are the ultimate investment. They become healthier, more successful adults, with better occupational outcomes and fewer problems with the judicial or other systems.

The Clean Energy Jobs bill is a win-win — it addresses the interconnected issues of environmental health, climate and ocean pollution, and economic development. That's a better world for our kids all the way around. 

Joel Nigg is director of the Division of Psychology and professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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