Why Are We OK With the Air Our Kids Are Breathing?

Linda Sharps wonders why we strap our kids into bike helmets and car seats, but no one talks about polluted air.

(Photo: Edward Lettau/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

Living in Eugene, Ore., with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

Falling asleep and never waking up. Choking to death on a half-chewed grape. Permanent spinal damage from tumbling off the couch. Succumbing to a fatal respiratory disease. Running from my desperately grasping hand in a crowded parking lot and being flattened under the wheels of an SUV. 

These are just a few of the things I worried about when my children were younger. I'd detail the entire list, but I'm sure you eventually have places to go today. Suffice it to say, I went through what you might call an anxious stage, prone to Googling my way into being convinced my baby's runny nose was the first sign of, say, stage IV leukemia. 

Have you heard the saying among doctors, "When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras"? In the nerve-racking days of early parenthood, my hoofbeats were always zebras'. Ebola-ridden zebras with undetected traumatic brain injuries from face-planting into the entertainment center. 

In retrospect, it almost seems strange that I so fervently resisted the bottomless rabbit hole of environmental threats to children. I suspect I knew my limits and could all too clearly see my straitjacketed, thumb-sucking future if I got too caught up in fretting over my children's exposure to the very air that they breathed. 

It was easier to tune out the experts linking environmental influences to childhood diseases such as autism, allergies, asthma, ADHD, learning disabilities, and certain cancers. But of course that doesn't mean those threats don't exist. According to a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, environmental hazards such as air pollution, secondhand smoke, tainted drinking water, lead, and pesticides are a serious concern for children:

The evidence is overwhelming that children are more vulnerable to these dangers, due to kids' size, growth patterns, behavior, and repetitive eating habits.

The toxic emissions spewed from the 248 million cars and trucks driven in this country have been found to exacerbate asthma, and scientists say that climate change could cause pollen counts to more than double over the next 30 years. The more potent CO2-boosted pollen isn't just uncomfortable for allergy sufferers: It can have serious implications for those with asthma.

Kids are extra vulnerable to air pollutants because when they're outside, they're not typically stretched out in a lounge chair with a book. My boys are in constant motion, and all that extra activity means they're breathing more air. Also, their height means they're closer to some high-density pollutants, which hover closer to the ground.

This is one of those environmental worries that really throws me for a loop. What, exactly, is the solution for limiting kids' exposure to outdoor pollutants? Boys, stay inside and play Xbox; the air's a little stale this afternoon? I can easily make sure my kids aren't around secondhand smoke, drinking tainted water, or living in a lead-coated home, but the experts' suggestion to "have alternatives to outdoor play" doesn't seem healthy either.

Luckily, I live in an area of the Pacific Northwest that's consistently made the list of cleanest cities for ozone pollution, and aside from temporary bouts of "particulate pollution" (usually caused by winter inversions) we don't have many bad air days. That may be changing, though. Rising temperatures from climate change are slowly increasing everyone's exposure to smog, pollen, and wildfire smoke.

Air pollution has been associated with a higher risk of adverse birth outcomes, chronic respiratory diseases, development of asthma, and more. It gets worse: Breathing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemical compounds found in automobile exhaust and industrial emissions, can cause cancers, reproductive problems, and organ damage. Vehicle exhaust contains ultra-fine particles, which PAHs stick to; thus they are inhaled into the lungs, at which point they can travel into the bloodstream and enter other organs.

Our kids aren't just breathing bad air when they're playing outside; they're essentially absorbing toxic chemicals throughout their entire bodies. God, it's no wonder I hated to think about this stuff when my boys were tiny babies; it's hard enough to think about it now.

What I've really learned from familiarizing myself with air pollution hazards isn't that my only hope is to seal my children in a chemical-free bubble—however much I might want to do so, especially if it had a noise-muffling feature—it's that I need to take these environmental concerns seriously and truly commit to doing my part to make things better.

I don't need to worry about zebras or horses. I need to worry about future generations wondering why I didn't do enough when we heard the hoofbeats.

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