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Childhood Wellness

Childhood Development and Outdoor Air Quality: What You Need to Know

Photo: Courtesy of Myles Tan

As a pediatrician in Southern California, I see the very real health impacts of air pollution through the symptoms of my patients. From more frequent and severe asthma attacks on days with high levels of air pollution to respiratory issues resulting from living too close to our region’s busiest freeways, many of my young patients suffer as a result of breathing unhealthy air. 

Pollution affects children most 

While breathing air pollution is unhealthy for everyone, children are particularly vulnerable. Children face increased risk from air pollution because their lungs are still growing and because they are so active, leading to more air pollution inhaled. Studies have found that growing up breathing high levels of air pollution may affect how children’s lungs function, putting them at greater risk of chronic lung disease as they age. The one in eleven children in the United States with asthma are especially at risk, since air pollution can trigger asthma attacks. 

What’s more, research warns that air pollution can be linked to harm children while they are still in the womb. Some studies show exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of preterm birth, low infant birth weight and infant mortality.

Potential improvement​​​​​​​

According to the American Lung Association’s 2017 “State of the Air” report, more than 29.5 million children live in a county with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, two of the most dangerous air pollutants. The emissions that cause both these widespread pollutants come from many sources, including tailpipe exhaust, power plants, refineries, smoke from wildfires and more. Unfortunately, climate change makes these pollutants harder to prevent and to clean up. 

While this is very alarming, there is good news. As a nation, we’ve made real progress in cleaning up the air our children breathe, thanks to the Clean Air Act. That progress has benefited our children’s lungs. An ongoing study  in Southern California found that improvements in air quality were associated with improvements in children’s lung function. 

What you can do 

So how do you protect your children? Track air quality information in your area at airnow.gov, and limit your children’s activities outdoors when the air is unhealthy. Support steps in your community to reduce pollution, such as getting cleaner school buses.  

The threat isn’t over by any measure. We need to protect the tools under the national Clean Air Act that help us get cleaner air and fight climate change so every child can breathe healthy air.  

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