How poor air quality affects children's health

A child looks at the smoggy New York City skyline
(Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There has been a growing body of research on the impact of air quality and health, with studies linking poor air quality to serious issues like heart disease and stroke. Research has also found that air pollution limits lung growth in kids and raises their risk of developing asthma, making access to good air quality important from the start.

How concerning are those poor air quality alerts and what should you do to keep your kids safe during those times? Here's what experts say.

Research from 2023 suggests that many children are exposed to poor air quality at least sporadically from a slew of sources like wildfires and industrial pollution. The study was part of the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, which measures parental attitudes, experiences and priorities around health-related issues and trends for American kids. It found that the majority of children were exposed to poor air quality at least once over the past two years.

For the study, researchers polled approximately 2,000 parents and asked them about their local air quality, as well as how concerned they were about it. The researchers found that most parents (73%) said they were concerned about the impact of air quality problems on their children’s health, but just 63% said they felt that they knew what actions to take around air quality problems.

Two-thirds of parents also said that, in the past two years, they experienced at least one day with poor or unhealthy air quality in their area due to wildfires, excessive heat, seasonal changes like pollen, elevated ozone levels and industrial pollution.

The majority of parents — 92% — said they got their information about air quality from news or weather reports, and they did the following when levels were bad:

  • kept their windows closed (69%)

  • limited their child’s time outdoors (68%)

  • had their child avoid strenuous outdoor activities (47%)

  • used a home air filter (19%)

  • had their child wear a mask when outdoors (11%)

Worth noting: 14% of those surveyed said they took no action when air quality was poor in their area, but nearly 1 in 5 of the parents polled said they believe that poor air quality impacted their child's health.

While 74% of parents said they think schools should move recess and gym inside during poor air quality days, only 21% said their child's school has a policy in place for this.

"It is important to note that exposure to pollution — especially the very small particles that can get into the deepest parts of the lungs — can cause a range of health problems including poorer cognitive functioning, impaired behavioral development, obesity and childhood cancer, and puts them at risk for additional problems during their adult life such as stroke and heart disease," the study's researchers noted.

Dr. Susan Woolford, a pediatrician and co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, tells Yahoo Life that the findings of her poll are “concerning.”

“Poor air quality can impact children of all ages,” she says. “Studies have shown that there is a connection between exposure to pollution in infants and toddlers and problems with their behavior and cognitive issues.” It may also raise the risk of childhood cancers, she says.

Research has even found negative health effects of exposure to poor air quality starts in the womb, linking exposure to wildfire smoke during pregnancy with a higher risk of preterm birth and lower birth weight.

Air pollution can be an issue for kids in the immediate aftermath of an exposure too, Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “It can impact even healthy kids and cause irritation in the lungs so that they start coughing or having asthma-like symptoms,” he says. “They also may not be able to run around as much as they want or normally would.”

In children with an underlying lung condition like asthma, air pollution can exacerbate symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath, Dr. Melanie Sue Collins, a pulmonologist at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. Some children may even need more intensive care than usual if they’re exposed to air pollution and they have asthma, Ganjian says.

“It’s much worse in those kids who are already sensitive,” he says. “You’ll see more wheezing and children who require stronger-than-usual medications. We see this a lot with wildfires and kids — children have more attacks.”

Outdoor air on bad air quality days is out of your control, but doctors say there are a few things parents can do to keep their children safe when pollution levels are high.

While 14% of parents say they do nothing to protect their children on poor air quality days, Woolford says it’s necessary for parents to take action “even before seeing symptoms.” She suggests doing the following:

  • Keep your child inside as much as possible.

  • If your child has to be outdoors, try to limit activities where they need to breathe rapidly or deeply, like playing sports or running around. (This increases exposure to the pollution, Woolford says.)

  • If you need to be outside, focus on having your child out earlier in the day when air quality tends to be better.

  • Keep your windows closed, if you’re able.

  • Run an air purifier to help improve the quality of your indoor air.

Collins recommends keeping tabs on how your child is doing when air quality is poor. “Symptoms to look out for include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, headache and difficulty breathing,” she says.

If the air pollution is particularly bad or if your child has severe asthma, Ganjian recommends considering having them wear a mask outside.

If your child has an underlying lung condition, Ganjian says it's important to be proactive with their pediatrician about bad air quality days. “Talk to your doctor,” he says. “They may want to start treating them more aggressively than usual around days with high air pollution, just to be safe.”

This article was originally published on Sept. 18, 2023 and has been updated.