When parents think about summertime in metro Atlanta, they probably picture relaxed evenings at the ball field, the laughter of children at neighborhood swimming pools, outdoor barbecues…. Unfortunately for Atlanta parents, summertime also signals ozone season, when intense sunlight and heat converts a mixture of tailpipe and power plant emissions with other chemicals resulting in unhealthy smog.
The realization that many kids are not getting enough time playing outdoors and growing awareness of childhood obesity has encouraged many parents to look for outdoor summer options for their kids, from park-based day camps to outdoor summer jobs. Young children playing at home are encouraged to “go play outside!” which a growing body of research shows not only increases the activity level of children, but also can enhance cognitive development. So what is an Atlanta parent to do on a “code orange” smog alert day? Does air pollution mean more screen time for Atlanta kids?
Thankfully, the answer is “no.” Simple changes in scheduling and location can ensure kids get the outdoor activity they need while also reducing harmful exposure to summer smog. Parents simply need to know how to monitor—and make sure their children’s camp counselors, teachers and coaches are monitoring—daily air quality. Caregivers also need to understand the difference between Atlanta’s two primary kinds of air pollution – ozone and fine particles – so they can schedule active outdoor activities for times when air pollution concentrations are lower.
Why should parents be concerned?
All children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of air pollution because they take in more air per body weight, their lungs are still developing and they tend to spend more time being active outdoors. Along with adults who suffer from heart or lung disease and the elderly, children and youth (birth to age 18) are in the group considered “sensitive” to air pollution. Many parents are aware that smog is bad for kids with asthma, but not as many know that it can slow lung development and affect lung function in ALL kids. The less children are exposed to smog, the better!
Air pollution is linked to serious health problems including heart and lung disease, cancer, premature death, and reduced lung function growth in children—deficits that may remain into adulthood. A growing body of scientific evidence points to negative health effects from ozone and fine particles at lower and lower concentrations. As a result, child caregivers should monitor pollution levels and adjust activities in accordance with expert guidance.
How can child caregivers quickly and easily monitor air quality?
Widely used throughout the United States, the Air Quality Index (AQI) rates air pollution levels on a scale from 0 (the cleanest) to 500 (the most polluted). The AQI level of 100 is set at the national standard, or maximum concentration allowed, for each pollutant, which is determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA also uses a color-coded scale for reporting daily air quality: green is good; yellow means moderate; orange means unhealthy for sensitive groups, including all children; and red is unhealthy for everyone. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issues smog alerts whenever the AQI is predicted to exceed 100, which would be reported as a “code orange” day.
Georgia EPD posts daily air quality predictions on its web site, www.georgiaair.org/smogforecast. The forecast includes information which pollutant is predicted to be of greater concern—ozone, or particles (fine particulate pollution). During smog season (May through September) parents may sign up to receive this information via email alerts through the Clean Air Campaign, and also may use EPD’s Air Quality Hotline: 404-362-4909. Most of the “code orange” days in summer will be triggered by ozone, but occasionally fine particles also are in the orange or red range.
Another resource for monitoring air quality was launched by Mothers & Others for Clean Air in August 2010. The AQI Flag and Poster Program provides schools and early childhood learning centers with colored flags and door cards to easily and visually alert children, teachers, coaches, administrators and parents about Atlanta’s air quality each day. Posters are also provided that explain the AQI colors and help staff and parents remember how to respond appropriately. The program is currently being utilized at 16 schools and five early childhood learning care centers in metro Atlanta, including 4 schools in Cobb County.
Parents also should know that 2012 smog alerts for ozone are not as conservative as EPA’s scientific advisory panel recommends. As a result, caregivers of children with asthma may want to pay attention to ozone days rated as “high yellow,” or close to 100, as well as orange and red days, which all caregivers should note. Even with a less conservative limit than what scientists recommend, Atlanta had about 40 days when ozone was in the “orange” range in the summer of 2011.
So what to do when it’s a bad air day?
The best choice for reducing children’s risk to the harmful effects of pollution is to avoid outdoor activity at the times of day when it peaks. Parents need to pay attention to the type of pollutant that is high to know how to avoid the time of day when pollution is at its worst, because different pollutants peak at different times of the day. Ozone tends to peak between 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., so plan outdoor activities for the morning or late evening on high ozone days. Fine particle pollution is different, with peaks right around morning and evening rush hour, but it may stay high all day long. So, if particle pollution is predicted to reach orange or red levels, it is best to locate an indoor, air-conditioned play space that day.
Sometimes moving inside just doesn’t work, so when caregivers find themselves unable to change outdoor plans on a smog alert day, they can reduce the intensity of their activities. When kids are running around and breathing hard they increase the amount of pollution they take in, so reducing the intensity of outdoor play, as well as the amount of time spent outdoors, reduces exposure to air pollution. Find some quiet games and craft activities, and save highly active time for the next opportunity when the air is healthier to breathe.
A set of expert guidelines for different caregivers that summarize these recommendations are available through the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta asthma resources web page (choa.org), and the “Get Informed” tab on the Mothers & Others for Clean Air web site (MothersAndOthersForCleanAir.org). The Mothers & Others for Clean Air program also supports parents in their efforts to persuade their children’s caregivers to follow the guidelines. By paying attention to the alerts and the kind of pollutant that is high and by adjusting activities accordingly, parents and child caregivers can ensure that kids get plenty of exercise while also avoiding air pollution that poses serious health risks.
(Written by Rebecca Watts Hull, Director, Mothers & Others for Clean Air and Irene Barton, Georgia PTA and East Cobb resident)