Air Quality and Kids: How to Keep Them Safe from Pollution

For parents and their children across the country the arrival of summertime means an increase in outdoor physical activities. Unfortunately, the longer, hotter days of summer can also bring higher levels of air pollution due to bad air quality days and the increasing frequency of severe air quality events like wildfires. Therefore it is important to schedule outdoor activities around local air quality. Below, we take a look at the causes and effects of outdoor air pollution, the meaning of the different alert levels for bad air quality days and different steps you can take to protect your loved ones from unhealthy air.

How indoor and outdoor air pollution affects children’s health

More than 90% of children around the world are exposed to polluted air that can damage their health, according to a 2018 report from the World Health Organization (WHO). Children are especially susceptible to the health effects of air pollution because:

  • Their organs are still developing, and
  • They breathe in more air in relation to their body weight.

Exposure to air pollution can cause:

  • Adverse effects on neurodevelopment that can negatively impact mental and motor development and lead to lower scores on cognitive tests.
  • Damage to lung function, even at lower levels of pollutant exposure.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Aggravated asthma symptoms.
  • Increased respiratory symptoms, including airway irritation and inflammation, coughing and difficulty breathing.

When children experience health effects caused by air pollution, it can also adversely affect their learning. Airborne pollutants can trigger asthma and allergy symptoms, as well as other respiratory conditions, that can affect student attendance and concentration. According to the CDC, asthma is one of the top causes of school absenteeism.

Outdoor air pollution sources

Kids can encounter air pollution in a variety of settings—during recess, outdoor after-school activities, sports, or their walk (or bike ride) to and from school. During severe air quality events such as the presence of wildfire smoke or heavy smog, their exposure will be greater. The two main types of airborne pollutants are fine particles, also called particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Particulate matter is made up of microscopic solid particles or liquid droplets that are small enough to be inhaled. Exposure to these airborne particles can cause health issues, especially when they enter the lungs and bloodstream.

VOC emissions, on the other hand, are carbon-based gases that can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, fatigue, difficulty breathing and chronic health conditions that include asthma and damage to the liver and central nervous system.

Many  outdoor air pollutants contain a combination of particulate matter, VOCs and other harmful gases. Here are some of the most common forms:

  • Wildfire smoke contains a mixture of fine particles and VOCs, though the main health concern from short-term exposure comes from the former. The particulate matter present in wildfire smoke can reach the lungs and heart after being inhaled and cause health issues including coughing, difficulty breathing, excess mucus and other lung and respiratory conditions.
  • Temperature inversions can be a natural source of air quality concern. Normally, warm and cold air mix vertically and keep concentrations of airborne pollutants near the earth’s surface from getting too high. However, during a temperature inversion, cold air near the surface gets trapped under a layer of warmer air and pollutants can build up to unhealthy levels.
  • Smog, typically caused by industrial and traffic pollution, can contain VOC concentrations that may negatively impact a child’s development. When students are exposed to high levels of air pollution, it can cause them to have slower increases in cognitive function than students in regions with less air pollution (Sunyer, et. al, 2015).
  • Ozone in the air we breathe is created by chemical reactions between VOCs and oxides of nitrogen, which typically occur when industrial and traffic emissions react in the presence of sunlight. These reactions are a particular concern in the summer when temperatures and daylight hours are at their highest levels. Ozone exposure can cause respiratory symptoms and decreased lung function.
  • Pollen can be a significant source of allergy symptoms, especially for children who often play outdoors. Pollen levels vary across the United States—because different types of plants produce pollen during different parts of the year, seasonal allergies are not always confined to the spring and summer.

Indoor air pollution

When outdoor air pollution is high, it can affect the air quality inside of homes, schools and other buildings. For example, students who attend schools in high-traffic areas have been found to experience more respiratory health issues such as coughing, wheezing and general allergy symptoms than children who attend schools in areas with less traffic pollution (Fsadni, et. al, 2018). If you take into account the pollutants already present in many school buildings, like mold, bacteria and VOCs, you can see how air quality in school buildings is a concern.

You can keep airborne pollutants from building up inside of your home by changing HVAC filters, installing carbon monoxide and radon detectors, controlling relative humidity, cleaning and dusting regularly, as well as using an air purifier.

What are AQI levels?

The Air Quality Index (AQI) was created to help the public better understand the changes in air quality, as well as the potential health effects of exposure to air pollution. AQI levels are often referred to using the following colors:

Green means that the outdoor air quality in your area is good, with an AQI rating of 0 to 50. This is the best air quality rating.

Yellow indicates moderate air quality with a rating of 51 to 100. Only students with unusual sensitivity to air pollution should experience symptoms on moderate air quality days.

Orange means that air pollution levels are high enough to be unhealthy for certain sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. Even those without asthma should limit physical activity while outdoors and take frequent breaks. The AQI Index values for this level are 101 to 150.

Red is used to indicate unhealthy air quality days with an AQI rating of 151 to 200. All outdoor physical activities should be limited. Longer outdoor activities should be moved indoors or rescheduled.

Purple signifies very unhealthy outdoor air quality. All outdoor activities should be moved indoors or rescheduled. The AQI ratings for this level are 201 to 300.

Maroon indicates hazardous air quality with a rating of 301 to 500, meaning that the entire population is likely to be affected by the current levels of air pollution.

If you would like to know more about the levels of air pollution that your child is exposed to in your region, and whether an Action day when AQI levels enter the unhealthy range is occuring or upcoming, you can go here to check for your city and find links to local air quality organizations.

Keeping your children safe from air pollution

One of the most effective ways to protect your child from exposure to air pollution is to monitor AQI levels in your area and follow outdoor physical activity guidelines relative to your child’s level of sensitivity. Exercise can cause your air intake to increase 10 to 20 times over your resting level, elevating the amount of airborne pollutants entering your body.

You can also look for regional air quality organizations for more information about air pollution concerns where you live. For example, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District offers a Real-time Air Advisory Network (RAAN) for residents to monitor local air quality.

On days when the outdoor air quality is especially bad, such as peak wildfire smoke or smog days, consider taking the following precautions:

  • Work with your child’s doctor to create an asthma action plan for daily asthma management. Make sure that your child’s school is aware of the action plan and able to act accordingly, especially on unhealthy air quality days.
  • Set your HVAC system to re-circulate or shut outdoor air intakes to help keep air pollution from entering your home.
  • Minimize indoor sources of air pollution, such as burning wood or candles, smoking cigarettes, spraying aerosols, and frying or broiling meat.
  • Use an air purifier to help remove airborne pollutants from your home.
  • Adults can consider wearing respirator masks after implementing other air quality control methods, but they are not recommended for children because they can fit incorrectly and impact a child’s ability to breathe. If the air quality is bad enough to necessitate wearing a mask, children should stay indoors, and evacuation should be considered.
  • When cleaning up ash after a wildfire, take care to avoid reintroducing the ash into the air. For example, take your vehicle to a car wash, clean toys and furniture with a damp cloth, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to clean your carpets.

Although the sources of air pollution can differ for each region of the United States, citizens across the country are concerned about adverse health effects caused by poor air quality. The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family from air pollution is to stay informed about the air quality conditions and concerns in your area. Then, you can take the appropriate precautions to avoid pollutant exposure on unhealthy air days.