Cities may seem less smoggy, but pollution is still a surprisingly serious problem—and kids, whose lungs are still growing, are most at risk. Here’s what you can do to help your family breathe easier.

By Kara Corridan
March 09, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Anna Godeassi

It may be sunny in Bakersfield, California, but the Thorson-Hevle family thinks twice before going outside. That’s because they need to plan every day around the kids’ severe asthma and allergies. Monty, 10, Sebastian, 8, and James, 7, have to wear respiratory masks when the air quality is poor—which is often, because their hometown is one of the cities with the worst air pollution in the nation. The family loves swimming, baseball, and soccer, but when the air is particularly bad, Sebastian can’t be outdoors at all. “It makes us all sad, so we work as a team,” says mom Andrea Thorson. “We stay in and play a game, do yoga, or watch a movie. We try to make it a family choice rather than a ‘sick kid’ situation.”

The most dramatic way the children’s health affects the family: The boys no longer attend public school. When their asthma was at its worst, they were missing as many as four days a week because their school didn’t have a nurse, and the other staff weren’t able to give the boys their medicine properly, says Thorson. Now they’re in a homeschool program part of the week. There, a teacher ensures that the boys get their inhalers and wear masks whenever necessary. On other days, Thorson’s mom—a former high-school English teacher—instructs them. “I had never intended for the boys to be homeschooled,” says Thorson. “My husband is a teacher and I’m a dean of instruction at Bakersfield College. We had no choice.”

Their situation may seem extreme, but 43 percent of Americans—that’s more than 141 million people—now live in counties that have been exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the 2019 “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association (ALA). This is an increase from the 134 million reported in 2018, and it’s due in part to rising levels of ozone—created when emissions from cars, power plants, and other sources are exposed to sunlight—as well as to high particle pollution from wildfires.

Climate change and dirty air are intertwined, as the same greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming are making the air unhealthy to breathe. Air-pollution levels had previously dropped by nearly 70 percent thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1970 and ensuing federal regulation of pollution from industrial sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But experts are alarmed that the situation is now getting worse.

Children are most vulnerable for a variety of reasons. The fragile tissues in a child’s lungs are still developing after birth, and kids usually spend more time outside than adults do. They’re generally more active there, too, so they inhale more polluted air. And children are physically closer to the ground, where some pollutants are at their highest concentrations.

Certain areas of the country are particularly susceptible to air-pollution problems. In the ALA report, Bakersfield came in first in short-term particle pollution (spikes in pollution over 24 hours), second in year-round particle pollution, and third in levels of ozone. Roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles, the city is in a county known for high agriculture production. “We’re in a valley surrounded by mountains, so we don’t have anywhere to disperse our pollution,” says Heather Heinks, outreach and communications manager of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, a public-health agency. On many days, the smog is visible and made worse by the often-oppressive heat.

A pulmonologist told Thorson that if she wanted her kids to get better, she had one option: Leave. “Bakersfield air has ruined their lungs and quality of life,” says Thorson. The family was set to move last year, but Thorson’s father needed open-heart surgery. They postponed the move so she could help care for him. In the near future, the family plans to move to Tehachapi, a small town high in the mountains of the San Joaquin Valley, where the air is crisp and clear.

But not all parents have that option, and the problem goes beyond pockets of the country. “As many as one child in five in the U.S. has asthma, and it may be related to breathing exhaust from cars and things that go,” says Parents advisor Aaron Bernstein, M.D., M.P.H., interim director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, and a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Their parents often feel responsible and wonder, ‘What did I do?’ But the answer is nothing. The chemicals in polluted air can harm kids’ developing bodies.”

Credit: Illustration by Anna Godeassi

Bad Air, Bad Health

Not only can poor air quality trigger and exacerbate asthma, but it’s also linked to headaches and “harmless” illnesses like colds and conjunctivitis, as well as heart disease, cancer, and reduced IQ. In fact, researchers from the University of Cincinnati recently found that 12-year-olds who had been exposed to high levels of traffic-related air pollution throughout childhood were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Kids can be impacted even before they’re born. “Research has shown that pregnant women exposed to air pollution from burning fossil fuels may be more likely to have miscarriages and to have babies born early and underweight,” says Dr. Bernstein. Last year, a study from Belgium found that air pollutants can cross the placenta, potentially impacting a fetus.

Low-income families are disproportionately affected by air pollution. Housing near a busy roadway, factory, or power plant is cheaper, and it also tends to have fewer trees and less vegetation around it to absorb pollution. “Regardless of race, people who live in low-income communities are exposed to high levels of pollution and may be unable to reduce that exposure,” says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of the ALA and lead author of the “State of the Air” report. “They’re more at risk for diseases like asthma, and they may not be able to easily access medical care.”

Unfortunately, you can’t necessarily tell whether your air is dirty because most major pollutants, such as ozone, are invisible. When there’s a large concentration of them, they appear as smog. The best way to figure out the air quality in your town is to plug in your zip code at airnow.gov. You’ll get the day’s Air Quality Index, ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous.”

An Entrenched Problem

We’re all inadvertently creating air pollution simply by the way we live. We create dangerous emissions from fossil fuels every time we drive a gas-powered vehicle; use gas, oil, or electricity in our home; or travel on boats, trains, or planes. Extracting coal and oil produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s much more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. Our garbage is yet another part of the problem. In landfills, certain solid waste releases methane as it decomposes. Some cities and towns burn their garbage at waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, which use the steam generated by the boiler to generate electricity. Although that’s good for the planet, incineration still impacts our health: WTE plants use filtering systems to control the pollutants that are released into the air, but it’s impossible to trap them all.

In 2017, the EPA began proposing steps to roll back its regulations, including ones that limit methane emissions. While the agency has stated that these changes would remove regulatory duplication and save millions of dollars in compliance costs each year, health experts are concerned. “We had done a very good job of cleaning up the air in the U.S., but the rollbacks in emission standards threaten these gains and could lead to increased disease and death in American children,” says Parents advisor Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College. “We’re at a point of crisis.”

What You Can Do

Fortunately, all of us can take steps to reduce air pollution. “Most of the steps are ‘small but meaningful,’” says Dominique Browning, senior director and cofounder of the advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force. “But if everyone did them, it would make a big difference in improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions.”

Lay Off The Gas Pedal

  • Don’t idle—in your garage, in a parking lot, or on the car line at school. “There should be an infrared camera showing what’s spewing out of a tailpipe when a car is idling—especially in summer when it’s hot and emissions contribute to the formation of smog,” says Browning. Of course, there are times when you have no choice, such as when you’re in slow traffic or on a cold day when you need to run your car to defrost your windows. But otherwise, if you’re stopped for 10 seconds or longer, turn off the engine.
  • Instead of taking multiple car trips to run errands, combine as many trips into one as you can so that you reduce emissions. “I can’t tell you how many parents—even ones whose children have asthma—don’t realize that one of the biggest sources of air pollution could be their car,” says Dr. Bernstein.

Consider Your Home

  • Have an HVAC specialist confirm that your home is properly ventilated , especially if you have a gas cooktop, a woodburning stove, or a fireplace, and that your furnace doesn’t leak any gases.
  • Regularly check the air filter on your furnace, and change it when it’s dirty.
  • Tell your energy supplier that you want to buy renewable energy (such as wind or solar power). Your home won’t necessarily be powered through those sources, but the company will have to purchase a percentage of your power through them. Some companies charge a small monthly fee for this service, but you’ll reduce your carbon footprint without making any drastic changes.

Cut Back On Pollutants

  • Test your home for radon, the second leading cause of lung cancer, and install radon-mitigation equipment if needed.
  • Take natural steps to control pests so you don’t have to use chemical-heavy pest-management solutions.
  • Give new paint, furniture, carpet, and fabric the sniff test before you buy them. If there’s a heavy chemical smell, the product is likely high in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Avoid products that are enhanced with chemical fragrances, especially cleaning products, candles, air fresheners, and plug-in scents.
  • Dial down your food waste. Food is the biggest component of solid waste in landfills, where it releases methane. Consider composting, which will save water and landfill space.

Speak Up In Your Community

  • Ask your child’s school to use cleaning products that are certified and labeled as environmentally preferable.
  • Ask local officials what they know about air pollution and what they’re doing to combat it.
  • Write postcards to your elected representatives—and consider making it a monthly family activity—saying you’d like them to support environment-first legislation, such as bills that reduce air pollution and support green energy. You can also join the Moms Clean Air Force or the ALA’s Lung Action Network, both of which will alert you about legislation in your state that needs support.

“Ultimately, the issue of a cleaner environment will be decided at the ballot box,” says Dr. Landrigan. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican. We all have to think about candidates in either party who will protect our environment for our children and grandchildren.”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's April 2020 issue as “The Air Out There.”

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