Air pollution doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Sure, it affects the lungs. Inhaling smoke and exhaust isn’t subtle. However, the effects are even more profound in kids. Air pollution affects brain development, lung development, cardiovascular health, and pregnancy outcomes. (Mothers exposed to air pollution are more likely to give birth prematurely, which comes with its own list of health consequences). So, how can we lower air pollution risks, especially for children? Today’s post will focus on a few actionable things that can have an immediate impact.
Choose outdoor time wisely.
We know it’s important for kids to spend time outside. Outdoor play, natural light, and exposure to nature have real health benefits. However, depending on where you live, some times of day may be safer than others. Just like a weather forecast, air pollution levels can be roughly predicted as well. If your schedule is at all flexible, checking your local air quality index can help guide decision-making. I use an app on my phone from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called AirNow. It’s great for information on which times of day may be safer for different groups of people. It allows you to look a few days ahead. The app also provides more detailed information about the different types of air pollutants.
PurpleAir provides current data from collection points word wide.
By going outside when the air is safest (cleanest), we can help lower some of the risks of pollution.
Choose walking and biking routes carefully.
Generally, walking and biking are healthy ways to get around. They certainly don’t add to air pollution. What about the person strolling or cycling near busy car-filled roads? Well, according to this excellent review, small adjustments can make a big difference.
Much of the research was done in adults, but I think it’s safe to extrapolate some of the recommendations. However, to state the obvious, we must keep traffic safety a top priority. Crossing a street has its own perils! And, of course, please obey all local laws.
Keep distance from a busy road.
Even a few meters of distance from motor vehicle traffic changes the amount of air pollution exposure. This could mean that walking on the opposite side of a street can lower risk (if traffic is worse on one side). It could also mean choosing a bike lane separated from the road, as opposed to a route where bicycles share the main road with cars. (With children, this may be a family’s best choice for safety reasons as well).
We can remember that vehicles going up hill will produce more emissions than downhill. One study in the review found that pedestrians on same side of the street as cars going downhill (as opposed to chugging up hill) had less pollutant exposure.
Avoid idling traffic.
When comparing stop-and-go traffic to cars moving at a consistent speed, the air is much safer with the moving vehicles. The starting and stopping produces more exhaust. Unfortunately, this means some of the worst air quality is found at intersections. Children, simply due to their shorter height, often have higher exposures. At intersections, the air is literally dirtier at their level. When planning a walking route, consider choosing to cross streets at less busy intersections. Or, one could plan a route where they avoid intersections altogether. If children have to wait for a school bus, extending the line away from the road can also lower the risk.
If air pollution is unavoidable, consider a facemask.
The aforementioned review collected data from before the Covid-19 pandemic. Since its publication, mask wearing has become much more common. The benefits of masks extend beyond viruses. While N-95 masks are much more useful in limiting air pollution exposure, even cloth masks provide some help. In adults, the fabric masks studied prevented about 15% of pollutants commonly found in diesel exhaust. This is a far cry from the N-95 masks or even masks with filter inserts. It may almost feel pointless. However, I’d argue that any reduction in a child’s risk exposure is worthwhile.
A few mornings ago, I saw a long line of kids waiting to get on their school bus. Most were wearing facemasks as the bus released a plume of black smoke. I’d take the 15% protection over zero. That being said, if exposure is frequent and prolonged, a well-fitting and effective facemask such as an N-95 could be considered.
Eat fruits and vegetables. Limit highly processed foods.
Yes, really. This is another reason to eat fruits and vegetables. The research is less rigorous, especially in children, but the science makes sense. Many of the things found in air pollution cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Fruits and vegetables have antioxidants. Theoretically, they can help protect the cells in our body from the effects of air pollution. And, also theoretically, highly processed food would help do the opposite. It could add to the stress and inflammation.
One study looked specifically at the benefits of broccoli sprouts. The sprouts help generate something called sulforaphane which helps protect cells. The study showed that people who had a broccoli sprout-containing drink excreted more air pollutants than those who did not have the drink. This means it helped their bodies detox some of the air pollution.
So, while we await other well-designed studies, we can continue to feed our children vegetables (for this and many other reasons).
Consider other exposures.
It’s beyond today’s post, but I want to briefly mention ways to lower risk in other ways as well. Air pollution also happens inside. Cleaner cooking fuels make a difference. Indoor air filters and air cleaners are good options for many people. When traveling by car in heavy traffic, it’s best to choose to recirculate the air when possible. This also means having the windows rolled up.
If someone has any kind of chronic illness (especially a respiratory one, like asthma), optimizing care is important! It will help the body be less susceptible to toxins in the air.
Air pollution is more than daily individual choices.
I think one of the reasons we don’t talk about air pollution enough is that so much feels out of our control. We can’t really control how many cars are on the street as our kids walk to school, for example. While we can drive less, the results don’t usually feel immediate. Of course, we should each try to drive less when possible. However, we also need to support policy changes that support cleaner air and safer outdoor space. Simply voting is a great first step.
Summary: We do have some control over our kids’ air pollution risks.
Even if it feels hopeless, we can still lower our children’s air pollution exposures. We can go outside during times of day with the cleanest air. We can stay as far away from traffic (especially at intersections) as possible. A facemask is reasonable in some situations. Our children can continue to strive for a whole foods diet with fruits and vegetables. And, depending on our home and family, we can consider limiting indoor exposures as well.
Finally, we must continue to support societal changes that will lead to cleaner air. Our children’s health depends on it.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier. Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.
This is for information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Please see the complete disclaimer.
Photo by Sorin Gheorghita via Unsplash.