When parents think about summertime in Atlanta, we like to picture relaxed evenings at the ball field and neighborhood swimming pool. However, summertime also signals ozone season, when intense sunlight and heat converts a mixture of tailpipe and power plant emissions and other chemicals into unhealthy smog.
Many parents are aware that smog is bad for kids with asthma, but not as many know that it can slow lung development and cause other serious health problems in ALL kids. This is because children take in more air per body weight, their lungs are still developing and they tend to spend more time being active outdoors.
And, given the growing awareness of childhood obesity, we want more outdoor activity for our kids, which not only can increase 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’s 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 smog. Parents, camp counselors, teachers and coaches simply need to know how to monitor and respond to changes in outdoor air quality.
Widely used throughout the United States, the Air Quality Index (AQI) rates air pollution levels as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA 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 youth; and red is unhealthy for everyone. Parents also should know that 2012 smog alerts for ozone are not as conservative as EPA’s scientific advisory panel recommends. Therefore, caregivers of children with asthma should respond to “high yellow” days as well as orange and red days.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) posts daily air quality predictions on its web site,georgiaair.org/smogforecast. The forecast includes information about which pollutant is predicted to be of greater concern – ozone (the usual trigger “code orange” days) or fine particulate pollution. In addition to monitoring this web site and signing up for email alerts, a growing number of schools and childcare centers also are taking advantage of the Mothers & Others for Clean Air AQI flag program. Through this program, color-coded flags and door cards easily and visually alert children, teachers, coaches, administrators and parents about Atlanta’s air quality each day. Posters explain the AQI colors and help staff and parents remember how to respond appropriately.
Ozone tends to peak between 2 and 7 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, and it may stay high all day. So, if particle pollution is predicted to reach orange or red levels, it is best to find an indoor, air-conditioned space that day.
When moving inside just doesn’t work, caregivers should then try to reduce the intensity of the outdoor activities. Running around and breathing hard increases the amount of pollution taken in, so introducing less intense play – such as gardening and craft activities, in addition to lessening the amount of outdoor time, reduces exposure to air pollution.
Expert guidelines for caregivers are available through the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (choa.org) and Mothers & Others for Clean Air (mothersandothersforcleanair.org) web sites. By paying attention to the alerts and the kind of pollutant that is high and by adjusting activities accordingly, child caregivers can ensure that kids get plenty of exercise while also avoiding air pollution that poses serious health risks.
Originally published in Atlanta Intown