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Parents worry about poor air quality, but don't know how to protect their children

As wildfires rage across Canada, a looming threat hangs over families in both Canada and the United States — deteriorating air quality. According to a new national survey conducted by the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, many parents worry about the impact of air pollution on their children’s health. 

The poll revealed that two out of three parents have been confronted by at least one day of poor air quality in their area over the past two years. But what is more unsettling is the widespread uncertainty about how to combat these invisible threats. 

Protective actions

Although a majority of parents instinctively shut their windows and limit their children’s outdoor exposure in response to poor air quality alerts, many seem to falter when it comes to further, more organized protective actions. 

For instance, fewer parents thought about restricting rigorous outdoor activities, fewer still considered the use of home air filters, and an alarmingly small fraction opted for preventive measures like masks.

Health risks

“Our report suggests poor air quality is a common issue for families. Local news and weather reports may help parents gauge their community’s air quality, but many seem unsure about how to protect their child when air quality worsens,” said poll co-director Susan Woolford, a pediatrician at U-M Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“Children’s organs are still developing, making them more susceptible to health risks from exposure to polluted air caused by wildfire smoke and other pollutants. This makes it essential to take precautions to protect their well-being when the air is unhealthy,” she added.

Information sources

The survey revealed that parents associate poor air quality predominantly with wildfires, with fewer attributing it to factors like excessive heat, pollen, or industrial pollution. 

This perspective underscores the role of timely and accurate information dissemination. Over 90 percent of parents, as it stands, lean on news or weather reports as their primary air quality information sources.

Action policies

Yet, information is just one part of the equation. Preparedness and action policies at community hubs like schools are also crucial. A concerning finding was that only 21 percent of parents are aware of any such policies in their children’s schools. 

Highlighting the importance of outdoor activities for children’s holistic development, the experts underlined the balancing act parents and educators must perform. While exposure to the outdoors fosters both physical and mental growth, the perils of pollution cannot be dismissed.

“Being outdoors is generally good for children’s physical and mental health but parents must also consider the risks of exposure to pollution,” Woolford said. 

“When air quality problems are expected to be temporary, moving activities indoors or planning outdoor events for early in the day when air quality tends to be better may be warranted to prevent high levels of exposure.”

Zoning policies 

According to Woolford and her colleagues, local and state policymakers are not exempt from responsibility. 

Thus, measures such as zoning policies to divert heavy traffic away from schools or the provision of filters to purify the air in educational and community spaces are also necessary to protect children’s health.

Guidelines for parents

The report offers specific guidelines for parents worried about their community’s air quality, including:

Understand the short- and long-term risks of exposure to air pollution

Since children breathe faster than adults, their lungs are exposed to more pollution per pound of body weight than adults, making air quality particularly important for their health. Moreover, children usually spend more time outdoors than adults and their developing bodies are more susceptible to the long-term impact of pollution. 

Although for children without a history of respiratory issues in their family, the threat might seem distant, small particles from pollution can still penetrate their lungs deeply, opening the door to severe health risks, such as childhood cancer and cardiovascular problems later in life.

Stay informed and being watchful for symptoms

Staying updated on local air quality reports and wildfire alerts are crucial for making informed decisions about children’s outdoor activities. Parents should also engage in dialogue with healthcare providers, keeping an eye out for worrisome symptoms like wheezing or persistent coughing, which are hallmarks of conditions like asthma and bronchitis exacerbated by poor air quality.

“If your child has preexisting respiratory conditions like asthma, consult their healthcare provider for advice on managing their condition during events that increase their risk of pollutant exposure,” Woolford said.

Limit outdoor activities and using masks

On days with poor air quality – particularly during wildfires – outdoor activities should be reduced or even completely halted. However, if such activities are inevitable, reducing strenuous activities and using KN95 masks are advised. 

Create a safe indoor environment

Parents should keep windows closed during periods with poor air quality in order to prevent pollutants from entering the home, and use filters and air purifiers to help reduce indoor pollution. Moreover, when air quality is severely compromised, they should also consider evacuating to an area with better air quality until conditions improve.

School and youth sports policies

On high pollution day, schools should take into consideration and implement guidelines to manage students’ exposure to pollutants based on the color-coded Air Quality Index. In addition, school officials could ask parents not to idle during their drop-off and pick-up times. Finally, youth sports programs and other similar organizations should consider rescheduling or even canceling outdoor events.

“Schools play an important role in protecting children from the adverse effects of poor air quality. We found that most parents are supportive of protective actions, such as moving recess and physical education indoors,” Woolford concluded.

The full report can be found here.

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