That brown, hazy air is bad for your children

This is December 13th, 2021, issue of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, children and parenting. Do you like what you read? Sign up to have it in your inbox every Monday.

I hate smog. I really hate smog. I spend much of the summer months in Los Angeles monitoring air quality apps and just waiting for November. If there are no forest fires by then, I can go hiking without using my inhaler. From my bedroom window I can see the meandering furrows that mark the San Gabriel Mountains.

This year, a brown haze has replaced the blue skies of late fall despite a mild fire season in Southern California. As an asthmatic, I spent many days weighing whether running – an exercise that helps me maintain my emotional and mental health – is worth the risk if I know it could cause a seizure. I thought of the equivalent from my childhood: taking a break, playing sports, skateboarding, cycling – all activities that are so important to the wellbeing of children, especially after a year of being stuck.

Prolonged exposure to air pollution is bad for everyone, but especially children, whose growing lungs and immature immune systems are more sensitive to pollutants, experts say. They also tend to spend more time outdoors and breathe faster than adults.


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I spoke to several air quality and pediatric lung health experts about how parents can expose their children to air pollution year round.

What’s the matter with the air?

Ozone pollution makes up most of the smog we see in summer. And although the cooler months often give us a respite from the dirty air, winter is also more hospitable for particulate matter pollution.

Particles called PM 2.5, which are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, are particularly disturbing. These particles can cause inflammation and affect the body’s ability to fight infection. They can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. They can also trigger strokes, asthma attacks, and heart attacks, and are a cause of premature death worldwide.

In November, the South Coast Basin – which includes Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties – had nine days when the daily average of 2.5 PM exceeded the national 24-hour health standard, according to air quality data. The entire first week of December was in this unhealthy area before the rain started.

“We have seen more days of high particulate matter than usual this winter,” Kim White, a spokeswoman for the Air Quality Management District, told the Times.

In recent years, similar periods of unhealthy air in SoCal have been the result of massive heat waves and forest fires that burned across the region. But southern California has so far been spared the devastating fires of recent years.

“In the past three years, we’ve seen relatively clean air data, aside from forest fires,” said Adrian Martinez, senior attorney at nonprofit environmental organization Earthjustice. “The inconvenient thing about this season’s pollution is that we don’t have a single source.”

Meteorologists say that a thick layer of the sea, also known as inversion, is partly responsible for the bad air. But the ships, trains, and planes that move cargo in and out of the region – while companies like Amazon strive to meet rising consumer demand – are likely to be contributing as well, said Edward Avol, professor of environmental health and preventive medicine at USC .

My colleague Nathan Solis reported that emissions from anchored ships in the twin ports of Long Beach and LA rose from just 1% of total ship emissions to 42% of emissions in December 2020.

What does that do to children?

Although every child is different in sensitivity, health status, and genetics, those who are repeatedly and heavily exposed to air pollution are more likely to develop asthma and other health impairments.

“In general, the more you are exposed to PM 2.5, the shorter your lifespan and quality of life. It changes your immune system, ”said Mary Prunicki, air pollution expert at Stanford University’s Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. “In particular, we know that wildfire PM 2.5 will lead to an increase in emergency admissions and hospitalizations for asthma exacerbations in children, as well as pneumonia and acute bronchitis.”

Children who live near highways, refineries, and power plants that are disproportionately Black and Latinx are particularly at risk. People of color are more exposed to pollution from almost all sources, including industry, agriculture, vehicles, and construction. Exposure to higher levels of smog has been linked to a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Studies have even shown a link between air quality and childhood school performance.

How can we protect children?

Children don’t adjust their behavior when it’s smog outside, so we need to make these informed decisions for them.

If you haven’t already done so, it is a good idea to start monitoring the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area. The experts I interviewed recommended the EPA’s and PurpleAir’s AirNow app, which hosts a map of real-time air quality measurements from over 20,000 sensors installed at home.

Parents should consider restricting their child’s rigorous outdoor exercise if the AQI is above 100 (the orange area), and perhaps discouraging it altogether once it is in the “unhealthy” area (red). However, if a child has asthma, you may want to do so even if the AQI is between 50 and 100 (yellow).

“Even if the guidelines say it’s okay,” advised Prunicki, “if your child coughs or has difficulty breathing, by all means ignore them and do what you think is good for your child.”

And if you can, stop your kids from walking near busy roads, said Sylvia Betancourt, the Long Beach Alliance’s program manager for children with asthma. This is especially true for asthmatic children.

If air isn’t exactly dangerous, you can encourage your children to play outside in the morning (or after sunset for older children) when the air quality tends to be better, said Sally Davidson Ward, director of pulmonology and sleep medicine at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.

“With the pandemic, we now know that keeping otherwise healthy children indoors has its own risks,” Ward said. “It’s difficult when we live in Southern California, where there are so many days of air pollution.”

N95 masks filter out most of the fine dust particles, but don’t work very well without a tight seal, Prunicki said – so they’re not a realistic option for kids.

Indoor air quality is also so important. If you leave your windows open or cracked on days with a high AQI, or if your house is old and drafty, the air in your house can be just as bad as the air outside. Invest in an air purifier – or several! – If you can.

The Young People’s Mental Health Crisis (And Other News)

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a public health recommendation on the mental health challenges facing children and adolescents, a rare warning and call to action to address an emerging crisis made worse by pandemics. Symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic – according to Murthy’s recommendation, a staggering 25% of teenagers have depressive symptoms and 20% have anxiety symptoms. My colleague Howard Blume reports that negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsiveness and irritability have also become more common in children.

K-12 educators report an increase in threats, fights and misconduct in school – and blame COVID-19 for this. The Times education reporter Melissa Gomez spoke to teachers and school administrators, who said students were becoming increasingly aggressive and aggressive in class. For example, more than a dozen school districts in California canceled classes after the November 30th shooting in Michigan in which a 15-year-old student was charged with murder, citing potential threats posted online. “Young people don’t know how to deal with depression and anger,” says Tyrone Howard, UCLA professor of education.

The LA Unified School District has appointed a new principal. Alberto Carvalho, who has led Miami-Dade County’s public schools since 2008 and is one of the most experienced and admired school district leaders in the country, will take on one of the most high-profile and demanding posts in public education. 57-year-old Carvalho will enter a school system in which many students struggled for a long time to achieve something and were further set back – academically and emotionally – by the pandemic.

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What else we read

A shortage of substitute teachers in the Bay Area hurts students who step out of the classrooms and wander the hallways when they find no one will show up to teach them. KQED

How can schools identify potentially violent students? Many academics and school officials say the difficult decision on whether to remove students with disruptive behavior should be made by a multidisciplinary team made up of administrators, school police officers, and mental health professionals. The Washington Post

School districts across the country are choosing to close – at least temporarily – on Fridays as they grapple with a surge in coronavirus cases and burned-out teachers. Some public schools are canceled on Fridays while others cancel classes altogether. The New York Times

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