News articles that warn Americans of the dangers of climate change are not new; however, you may have recently noticed an increase in air-quality alerts and, perhaps, poorer air quality in your backyard. This situation is, in large part, due to smoke and fine particle matter from Canadian wildfires that are traveling hundreds of miles into the continental United States. Protecting your family’s health from air pollution is important at any time, but, with the increase in air-quality alerts, you may be particularly interested in addressing this concern and reducing your family’s risks.
Understand the types of air pollution.
The Clean Air Act regulates major air pollutants in the United States. Below are descriptions of two major sources of air pollution:
- Particle pollution is a combination of solid and liquid droplets in the air, such as dust, dirt, smoke, pollen, mold spores, and soot. Particle pollution can be especially high when you are near busy traffic areas, when smoke is present (e.g., camp fires, wildfires), and when the weather is calm, and the air is stagnant (e.g., hot, humid day versus a windy, rainy, or snowy day). Particle pollution often has a seasonal pattern based on location (e.g., more wood stove use in cooler weather months in the mountains).
- Ground-level ozone pollution forms in sunlight from sources like vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities (e.g., areas of fracking; large-scale animal operations) and can be found in products that are not environmentally friendly (i.e., paints or solvents). This type of air pollution intensifies with heat, so it is especially concerning in the afternoon and in the early evening on hot, sunny days. Therefore, it is best to plan your family’s outdoor activities when it is cool outside or in the morning when air quality is better.
National air-quality standards are set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to particle pollution and ground-level ozone pollution, the following chemicals are major pollutants that can impact air quality:
- Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that is colorless and odorless. It results from the incomplete burning of natural gas or products that contain carbon (e.g., wood, oil, coal, kerosene, propane). This gas can be produced within or around homes from sources such as gas water heaters, vehicle exhaust, faulty heating sources, and charcoal grills (Penn Medicine, 2021).
- Sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring gas that consists of sulfur and oxygen. It causes acid rain. This gas results from burning fossil fuels like coal (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2008).
- Nitrogen dioxide is a respiratory irritant that precedes ozone formation. The main source of it is combustion sources like vehicles, power plants, and industrial engines (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2010).
Monitor air quality as air pollution is more problematic for children.
Children are at greater risk of incurring health complications due to air pollution. Monitoring your child’s environment for poor air quality is critical for the following reasons:
- Children tend to be shorter than adults and are closer to the ground; therefore, they are more likely to breathe pollution particles that have settled.
- Children are more likely than adults to spend time outdoors engaging in physical activity (e.g., play, school recess).
- Children’s respiratory rates are faster than adults. So, they breathe in more air in comparison to their body weight than adults do.
- Children’s bodies and their organs are still developing. This means that they are sensitive to environmental toxins. Air pollution can reduce lung-function development and affect the growth and development of the brain and central nervous system, which controls activities like learning, emotion, self-control, problem-solving, and memory (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021; Brumberg et al., 2021; Mahnke et al., 2023).
Remember, children, especially infants and toddlers, are unable to monitor their exposure to air pollution and modify their environment on their own. You play an important role in protecting them!
Check your local Air Quality Index regularly.
One of the simplest ways to be vigilant is to assess your local air quality. The official United States Air Quality Index (AQI) is a color-coded index, which is designed to inform individuals whether their local outdoor air quality is healthy or unhealthy. The highest ratings have a value over 151 and are coded red (unhealthy), purple (very unhealthy), and hazardous (maroon).
AirNow, is a website supported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and its partners. This website allows users to enter a zip code, city, or state to immediately receive an Air Quality Index report for their local air quality. Users can also access a variety of other information on the website, including forecast air-quality reports, health activity guides, and interactive air-quality maps for more than 500 cities across the United States.
Stay apprised of circumstances that may impact your air quality! If you are concerned, check the Air Quality Index for your community before taking your child outdoors to engage in physical activity. This will empower you to take precautions as needed to protect your family’s health.
Recognize and prepare to guard against the dangers of air pollution.
Air pollution is a potential threat to all children’s health. It has been associated with respiratory infections, asthma, preterm births, low birth weight, infant mortality, abnormal lung development, neurodevelopmental disorders (i.e., growth and development of the brain and/or central nervous system), cognitive effects and IQ loss, autism, pediatric cancers, obesity, and risks for other chronic diseases later in adult life (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease; American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021; Brumberg et al., 2021; Mahnke et al., 2023).
Some populations are at increased risk from air-pollution exposure. Older adults and individuals with health conditions, such as heart or lung disease, are at greater risk when air quality is poor. For these individuals, the impacts of breathing polluted air can include hospitalization or death (AirNow, n.d.). In children with chronic health conditions such as asthma, allergies, or other chronic diseases, air pollution has been shown to worsen health conditions (Mahnke et al., 2023). Children living in poverty and children of marginalized races/ethnicities are more likely to reside in areas in which United States air-quality standards are not met and where they experience elevated exposures to hazardous air pollutants that are known to cause health conditions like cancers (Brumberg et al, 2021; Mahnke et al., 2023). Residents who live in geographic areas that are affected by environmental factors like extreme or prolonged heat, droughts, or wildfires can encounter increased risks; air pollution can present in these communities as smog, dust, smoke, and elevated ozone and carbon dioxide (Mahnke et al., 2023).
During times of poor air quality, any individual can experience symptoms like the following:
- Undergoing eye, nose, or throat irritation;
- Coughing or experiencing increased phlegm production; or
- Having difficulty breathing (e.g., chest tightness, shortness of breath).
Children may have more trouble breathing than other individuals when the air quality is poor, especially when smoke or ash is present. Respiratory hazards, like mold, nuisance dust (e.g., pollen or dust from sanding wood), and wildfire smoke, can be reduced through the use of a respirator or mask by adults and children 2 years old or older. For information on the function and fit of different types of respirators and masks, review information provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Protecting Children with Asthma
If your child has asthma, have their relief medications readily available when air quality is poor. Also, discuss and/or complete an asthma action plan with your child’s doctor, and share the plan with your child’s school. The action plan can include content on how to recognize and treat asthma symptoms, how to manage and limit asthma triggers, and how to use medications. Sample asthma action plans are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Take small actions to make a big difference in the air we breathe!
Breathing is essential to life, and everyone can do their part to reduce air pollution. Natural experiments, like traffic restrictions during the 1996 and 2008 Olympics and curtailment of commercial flights during the COVID-19 pandemic’s state-of-emergency restrictions, have demonstrated that air-quality improvements are possible and can have positive impacts on community health (Brumberg et al., 2021; Friedman et al., 2001; Mueller et al., 2022; Wang et al., 2009). Below are some steps you can take to reduce the negative health impacts that poor air quality can cause, so the air your child breathes is safe and helps them grow healthy!
- When air quality conditions are poor, remain indoors and keep windows closed. Limit vigorous outdoor activity.
- If possible, choose a home and child care or school that are not located close to heavy traffic or sources of pollution (e.g., dry cleaning store, airports).
- Plant trees and add plants to your outdoor green space to help filter the air. Mulch or compost leaves and yard waste instead of burning them.
- Reduce carbon emissions with a cleaner commute—walk, cycle, carpool, or use public transportation.
- Some emerging data suggest that vitamins C, D, and E might mitigate the oxidative effects of air pollution (Brumberg et al, 2021). Feed your child(ren) healthy meals that include quality proteins and fruits and vegetables (e.g., citrus fruits, dark leafy greens, seafood, eggs, mushrooms, asparagus, almonds). [Caution: Avoid feeding your child any foods that are known allergens for them.]
- Purchase a portable carbon dioxide detector to monitor problems with air circulation in your home or travel sites. Elevated carbon dioxide levels can cause drowsiness, headaches, poor concentration, dizziness, increased heart rate or blood pressure, and nausea. At the highest levels, oxygen deprivation can result and lead to convulsions, coma, and death.
- Consider upgrading your heating/cooling source to a heat pump or ductless heat pump, or use electric heat for more efficiency and to reduce carbon emissions. Use high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) air filters in your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
- Purchase zero-emission vehicles, and combine trips for errands to avoid multiple ignition starts and idling. Keep your vehicle’s tires inflated to the recommended pressure, and try to avoid spillage when fueling. Ensure your gas cap is tightened after fueling.
- Keep all vehicles’ (e.g., car, boat) engines maintained to prevent smoking.
- Turn off lights and other devices (e.g., televisions, computers) when not in use.
- Properly use environmentally safe household and garden products (e.g., cleaners, paints), and seal them well to prevent evaporation. Look for products marked as low-volatile organic compounds (i.e., low-VOC).
- When buying appliances and equipment, purchase items with Energy Star labels as they will conserve energy.
- Set your air conditioner at a higher temperature in the summer, and set your heating source at a lower temperature in the winter.
- Reduce fireplace and wood stove use. Use gas logs instead of wood if possible. If you must burn wood, visit the Burn Wise Program for clean strategies. Limit the use of candles.
- Avoid smoking tobacco products or exposing your child to second hand tobacco smoke from others.
- Advocate for renewable energy; reduced reliance on coal, gas, and oil; and regulations on industrial emissions.
AirNow – U.S. Air Quality Index
AirNow hosts an air-quality website, which is supported through a partnership of the United States Environmental Protection Agency; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; National Park Service; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and tribal, state, and local air-quality agencies. The partners and others from across the country send their monitoring data to AirNow for local Air Quality Indexes to be displayed for users. In addition, the Department of State provides data from United States Embassies and Consulates to help inform military personnel and other citizens overseas of air quality outside the United States. In addition, the United States Forest Service contributes fire and smoke data.
Climate Kids – Air
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration hosts the Climate Kids website for children, and it includes information on air pollution. Climate change is explained using games, activities, and videos. Your child can learn about earth and ocean scientists and environmental topics like the weather, the atmosphere, water, energy sources, animals, and plants.
AirNow. (n.d.). Older adults and air quality. https://www.airnow.gov/air-quality-and-health/older-adults
AirNow. (n.d.). What you can do. https://www.airnow.gov/education/what-you-can-do/
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021, May 13). AAP highlights impact of air pollution on children’s health. Healthchildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/Air-Pollution-Childrens-Health.aspx
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