ARTICLE BY CHRISTINE JOHNSON
The Ugly Truth About the Air We Breathe
& the Lasting Health Effects on Our Children
There is a silent and invisible threat all our children face. It can consume them on the playground, at school, and even in our homes. It’s air pollution. Exposure to unhealthy air can have lasting effects on your child’s health. From their heart to lung function and even premature death, air pollution is a serious and underestimated health threat.
91% of the world’s population live in cities and communities with unhealthy air. The situation in our homes can be even worse. The Environmental Protection Agency says the air quality in our homes is often more unhealthy than the air outside our window. The good news is you can take steps to improve the air quality in your home, and new research about the causes and effects of unhealthy air can help you make the best choices for your family.
Long-Term Health Impacts
Children are the most vulnerable to the negative health effects of air pollution. The World Health Organization says pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under five years old. Poor air quality is a leading risk factor.
When your child breathes in unhealthy air, it goes deep into their lungs. The smallest and most dangerous pollution particles can reach their bloodstream. The EPA spells out a grave list of ailments poor air quality can cause:
- Aggravate asthma
- Increase respiratory issues like coughing or irritation of the airways
- Decreased lung function
- Irregular heartbeat
- Damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system
- Premature death in people with lung or heart disease
What’s Causing Poor Air Quality Around My Child?
Air pollution is caused by several factors including industry and energy producers, agriculture, transportation, waste management, and household energy. Let’s separate indoor and outdoor air pollution so you can understand what could be tainting your child’s air quality.
Indoor air pollution
We spend about 90% of our lives indoors. It’s also one of the most polluted places for you and your children to be. Our homes can be a cesspool for toxins. Particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found indoors can cause prolonged or permanent health issues.
- Particulate matter (PM) is a mix of solids and liquids in the air. Dust, pet dander, fireplace soot, and smoke are all examples of PM found in a house. PM can flare up your child’s asthma symptoms or cause them to cough.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted into your home from the use of cleaners, disinfecting sprays, air fresheners, glue, cosmetics, paint, and varnishes. The EPA says exposure to VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. It can also cause frequent headaches and nausea. Prolonged exposure is linked to liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage.
A recent study from Duke University found VOCs in two common household items. Researchers looked at children who lived in homes with all vinyl flooring or flame-retardant chemicals in the sofa. Researchers found high levels of semi-volatile organic compound (SVOCs) in the children’s blood and urine. Lead researcher Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist, says SVOCs are widely used in furniture, building materials, and electronics.
The study found children living in homes with all vinyl flooring had a higher risk of respiratory disorders, skin irritations, multiple myeloma, and reproductive disorders. Researchers discovered the vinyl floors had concentrations of benzyl butyl phthalate. The children in the study living with these floors had high concentrations of the chemical in their urine.
Outdoor air pollution
Unhealthy outside air is often caused by the luxuries we enjoy in our lives. Emissions from cars, solid fuel burning, and agricultural emissions fall under this category. The unhealthy outdoor air levels vary across the world depending on where you live and even the weather. Check out the World Health Organization’s interactive map to see the cities and countries with the worst air pollution.
Smoke from wildfires can also downgrade the air quality. Wildfires spew VOCs and PM into the air. The effects can be felt up to 100 miles away from a fire. Duke University and the National University of Singapore teamed up to study the impact of wildfires on babies in the womb. Researchers discovered irreversible damage is done to the fetus that will impact their growth and potentially their livelihood. Babies exposed to haze from wildfires while still in the womb had stunted growth. The study focused on the issue of wildfire haze in Indonesia, a country where someone’s height is directly associated with their wages. The study reports this equals about three percent of average wages for about one million Indonesian workers. Forest fires are intentionally set to clear land for the palm oil industry. Palm oil is used in food products like frozen pizza, cosmetics, cleaning products, and candles.
Taking Action To Protect Your Child
So what can you do to protect your child from unhealthy air?
- Start with education and an investment in your child’s health. An indoor air quality monitor like the Laser Egg will constantly update you on the air quality levels in your home. It reads VOCs and certain PM levels. It links to an easy-to-use app on your smartphone. Your Laser Egg can be set up with Apple HomeKit to control your humidifier, air purifier, and air conditioner. The Laser Egg is portable, so you can move it room to room with your child or take it with you on family trips.
- Cut back or dilute VOCs in your home. Remember, VOCs are gases emitted by things like air fresheners, cleaning sprays and even cosmetics. Open windows and doors if you are painting or using glue. The EPA also advises that you never mix cleaning products. And above all, keep all hazardous household products out of your child’s reach.
- Make small changes to improve your child’s indoor air quality. Curious to learn more?