Children's Health Protection
A Different Spin on "Fresh Air"
Even though spending time outdoors is a healthy and fun part of growing up, it pays to know your surroundings. Who doesn’t love a bit of "fresh air?" But, when outdoor air pollution levels are high, that "fresh air" can result in some not-so-cool health effects. When you’re outside, you may be exposed to outdoor air pollutants like ground-level ozone (smog) and particle pollution. These pollutants, as well as many others, can be harmful to your health. Young children are especially at risk because they are active outdoors, and their lungs may still be developing.
First, let’s discuss these pollutants:
Ground-level ozone is most commonly known as smog. It’s created by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) combined with heat and sunlight.
VOC + NOx + Heat + Sunlight = Ozone
Examples of NOx and VOCs that form ozone include motor vehicle exhaust, fumes from factories, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents (a liquid that can dissolve another substance like paint). Because sunlight and hot weather are involved in creating ozone, it is mainly a summertime air pollutant.
Ground-level ozone is nothing to laugh at. It can cause coughing, throat irritation, and chest pain. It can also cause breathing problems and trigger asthma attacks. Kids who are active outdoors on hot summer days may be affected by high levels of ozone.
You should know that there is also good ozone. The good ozone is in the upper atmosphere and protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Particle pollution is the term for tiny particles in the air in the form of dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets. Some particles are emitted directly into the air from combustion sources such as cars, trucks, buses, and power plants. Most particles result from chemical reactions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and NOx with other chemicals in the atmosphere.
The majority of SO2 released into the air comes from electric utilities and refineries, particularly those that burn coal. Breathing air polluted with particles has been linked to a number of children’s health problems, including bronchitis and asthma.
To see if the air is clean in your community, check out your local Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI is a guide for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and if you need to do anything to protect your health.
To learn more about outdoor air pollution and what you can do, check out the following tips and activities.
Check the AQI in your local newspaper, your local weather channel or at www.epa.gov/airnow to help plan daily activities. This is especially important for children with asthma and before children play outside.
- Reduce your outdoor activity when you hear that outdoor air quality is poor.
- Walk, ride your bike, get a ride from a friend or take public transportation to help reduce pollution from cars.
Ask your science teacher to dedicate a day to outdoor air pollution education. Offer to help out by researching air pollution issues at EPA’s or other Web sites. Use this information to help design an outdoor air pollution presentation for your class. Start by listing some of the outdoor air pollution topics your presentation will cover.
For Earth Day, World Health Day, World Asthma Day or Children’s Health Month, create and hand out informational brochures or flyers in your community about outdoor air quality. Start by creating an outline of the important messages that you want to get across.
Get your class and school to be part of the International Walk to School Day (usually held the first week of October).
Start a Bike to School Day. Work with your parents and teachers to find safe routes to school.
Find out if your local newspaper prints the AQI. If not, work with your science teacher or community groups to include it in the newspaper.
Get your parents involved. Remind them to reduce their driving by combining trips and carpooling. Also, avoid mowing the lawn and refueling the car when air quality is poor.
For more information on AQI, visit www.epa.gov/airnow/.