Can Children Safely Play Outside When Air Quality Is Poor?

When air quality suffers, so does children's health

Child outdoors on foggy/smoggy day
Child outdoors on foggy/smoggy day. Getty Images/Mats Anda/Moment Open

Parents and childcare providers should monitor air quality before allowing children to play outside during summer months on Ozone Action or Ozone Alert days. Poor air quality can aggravate asthma and affect those with any type of respiratory weakness, particularly the very young and the very old.

Ground-level ozone and airborne particles, two pollutants that threaten human health, typically cause air quality to worsen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

 Children with respiratory illnesses or asthma can become very ill because of ozone exposure. They can suffer from asthma attacks and need more medication, medical treatment and trips to urgent care on such days. Therefore, parents and caregivers should take preventative action to stop poor air quality from sickening children.

What Is the Ozone?

Ozone, also known as smog, irritates the respiratory system. Ozone is formed when a mixture of air pollutants "bake" in the hot summer sun. Exposure to high ozone levels can cause shortness of breath, pain with deep inhalation often referenced as chest tightness, coughing and wheezing or phlegm, headaches, nausea and eye and throat irritation. Pollution can really wreak havoc on people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children--especially infants and toddlers.

How Is Ozone Recognized?

The irony of ozone is that it is often at its unhealthiest levels on days considered perfect for outdoor activities.

Pollutants, released from sources such as automobiles and factories, exacerbate the situation. When ozone levels are high, the forecast usually calls for sunshine, clear sky, high temperatures and little or no wind.

When Is Air Quality the Worst?

Ozone's highest levels usually occur between the hottest times of the day, typically between noon and 6 p.m. from May through September.

Meteorologists can predict high ozone days because weather influences the formation of ground-level ozone. Many municipalities and states have a process in place for issuing high ozone alerts to residents. The key is to be informed and aware and to plan activities accordingly. Morning hours are best for being outside but if one is outside in the afternoon, avoid strenuous activities or exertion.

Are Healthy Children at Risk?

The answer is yes, although the impact may or may not be immediately noticeable. Medical studies have shown that ozone exposure causes inflammation, with unhealthy effects continuing for days after exposure. Children often love to play outside on summer afternoons, but because their lungs are still developing, they breathe more rapidly and inhale more air pollution per pound of body weight than adults. These factors put children at increased risk for respiratory ailments.

Health Tips to Consider

Know what the ozone level is in your community by using the EPA website or viewing your local weather broadcast.

Many cities not only issue Ozone Alerts, but also promote carpooling, non-motorized push mowers, use of hand edgers and other non gas-powered use on these days.

Understand Air Quality Index (AQI) and its associated colors. The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality and describes how clean or polluted the air is. 

Know your childcare provider's or school's policy for outdoor play in the summer. It's important for parents to ask how childcare providers monitor air quality, what they do during heat advisories or how they identify children with asthma or respiratory illnesses. If parents use a nanny or in-home care provider, it will be the parents' decision to set guidelines for outdoor play and communicate to their employees about air quality practices. 

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