Ask Planet Detroit: How much will air pollution affect my child?

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Dear Planet Detroit,

How will children living in areas with high levels of air pollution in Detroit be affected? Specifically, how might it impact their choices and their futures?



Dear Concerned,

This is a great question with far reaching implications. Children suffer the most from environmental impacts, as developmental side-effects from adolescence can last a lifetime. 

First, let’s talk about what we know and don’t know about air pollution in Detroit.  Most days, Detroit air quality meets Clean Air Act standards and is rated as “Good or Moderate” based on the national standard Air Quality Index. But some experts say better monitoring is needed, particularly with respect to understanding the effects of cumulative exposures in communities that have a high density of polluters like in Southwest Detroit. You can find more information about how air quality is regulated here.

To better understand the effects of air pollution on children, we reached out to environmental journalist Beth Gardiner, author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution. She says that air pollution has clear, negative impacts on children. But also that the situation is improving. 

For starters, air pollution is bad for everyone. It has been directly linked to breathing conditions like asthma and lung cancer. But because oxygen, and therefore toxins, are circulated throughout the bloodstream, it has wide-ranging health impacts. 

“Even moderately elevated levels of air pollution are associated with more heart attacks, strokes, emergency room visits, all types of cancer, and Parkinson’s,” Gardiner told Planet Detroit. 

The effects of air pollution on children manifest most clearly in various kinds of lung diseases. That’s because the lungs continue to develop into young adulthood and children tend to be more active (and therefore breathing more). Gardiner cites a multi-year study from the University of Southern California which found that lung growth was lower for children in areas with higher pollution. 

This is likely setting them up for health complications later in life. There can also be compounding effects in asthmatic children, who have to be removed from school with more frequency.

Problems can begin as far back as the womb. Pregnant women exposed to more air pollution have higher rates of miscarriages, premature birth, and babies with low birth weight. 

Air pollution from vehicles can be as bad as that from smokestacks. Gardiner cites another study of mothers who lived near a toll booth stop on the freeway. After switching to automatic tellers, which reduced traffic, rates of premature birth dropped.

“That’s telling us that the highway exhaust that we all breathe all the time is associated with a significant risk of premature birth,” Gardiner says.

Air pollution can even negatively affect cognitive capacity — attention, memory, IQ. Obviously that’s a worrisome finding for developing minds. 

That’s a lot of bad news. But there are reasons to be hopeful. 

For one, air quality has dramatically improved over the last few decades thanks to the passage and subsequent strengthening of the Clean Air Act (the last four years notwithstanding as the Trump administration rolled back hundreds of environmental regulations). Cars today produce fewer toxins and factories are better regulated; as a result, air in the United States is much cleaner. And unlike greenhouse gases, air pollutants don’t stick around for years. 

“The good news is that when you take the steps to clean it up, the air gets clean right away and we reap the health benefits almost immediately,” Gardiner says. You can see this very clearly with the inverse — on high pollution days, there are more health emergencies and people are told to stay indoors.

Gardiner is also quick to point out that “no one breathes the average.” Like so many other environmental issues, air pollution is a matter of equity. Proximity — even a difference of several blocks — plays a role in how much air pollution someone consumes. If you’re closer to polluters, like factories or incinerators or freeways, property values are lower. Therefore, the median income is going to be lower. 

Fortunately, there are things everyone can do to mitigate their daily exposure. Get home air filters — here are some cheaper options. Walk or bike one block over to a busy street. Reduce intense physical activities near polluters. And stay indoors on high pollution days.

Do you have a question we can help answer?

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