Not mere child's play

The impact of outdoor and indoor air pollution on children's health is nothing to sneeze at. Yet, sorting out the different impacts of exposures to multiple contaminants in both outdoor and indoor settings on children is no simple task. To gain a better understanding of this complex problem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other groups are devoting increasing amounts of time and money to research.

Outdoor air pollution can impact anyone's health, but children are particularly vulnerable. There are several reasons for children's susceptibility to contaminants. Their airways are narrower than an adult's and their respiratory systems are still developing. They breathe more quickly than adults and inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight. Because of their tendency to spend more time outdoors than most adults and engage in more vigorous physical activity, they are subjected to greater exposures of air contaminants.

As part of its effort to improve ambient air qualilty, EPA has set national standards under the Clean Air Act for the six major outdoor air pollutants: ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In some parts of the United States, the level of outdoor air pollutants is currently much lower than it was in the past. However, in other areas of the country, such as the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex area, ambient air quality is worsening.

More than 25 percent of U.S. children currently live in parts of the country that do not meet all national outdoor air quality standards. This can result in a large impact on children's health. For example, children are particularly sensitive to particulate matter, which may cause respiratory disease and aggravate asthma.

Indoor air pollution can also adversely affect children's health. EPA studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor air levels of many pollutants may be two to five times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor levels. These levels of indoor air pollutants are of great concern because EPA estimates that most people, including children, spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. Indoor air pollutants can include tobacco smoke (secondhand smoke); allergens, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, radon, lead and pesticides. For more information about both indoor and outdoor air pollutants, visit EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection Web site at www.epa.gov/children/air.htm.

One of the leading institutes conducting research on the impact of poor air quality on children's health is the University of California's Center for Occupational & Environmental Health (COEH). The center's researchers recently received two grants totaling $3.5 million from California's Air Resources Board to study collaboratively how airborne particles affect the long-term health of asthmatic children in Fresno County, Calif. This area has a high incidence of asthma and high levels of air pollution, especially particulate matter. To learn more about the center and its research, visit its Web site at http://ehs.sph.berkeley.edu.

Another institute dedicated to understanding and preventing environmentally-related diseases in children is the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH), part of Columbia University's Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. CCCEH research projects are exploring the significance of pollutants, allergens, social stressors and nutritional factors in child health and development and in children's susceptibility to diseases.

This past March, CCCEH sponsored a conference of children's health in the urban environment that focused on health issues such as asthma. According to one of the speakers, Dr. Jean Ford, director of the Harlem Lung Center at Harlem Hospital, childhood asthma rates have increased nationwide in recent years - 78 percent between 1980 and 1993. For more information about CCCEH, visit the center's Web site at .

In his article, "The big picture" that begins on page 14, Dr. Joe L. Mauderly, director of the National Environmental Respiratory Center (NERC), focuses on the myriad air contaminants in both outdoor and indoor environments, together with many other environmental factors, that act together to influence human health. He emphasizes that our traditional approach to dealing with air pollution has focused on one pollutant at a time despite the fact that nobody breathes only one pollutant at a time. NERC intends to study several complex atmospheres, having different but overlapping composition, using identical sets of health assays in order to create a data matrix of composition versus response.

These ongoing research projects need the active support of the public and private sectors. We'll all be able to breathe more easily if we take strong measures now to ensure better air quality for our children and future generations.

This article appeared in Environmental Protection, Vol. 11, Number 5, May 2000, Page 6.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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