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Wildfire smoke can be especially dangerous for kids. Here's how to protect them


Wildfire smoke affects everyone. But health experts say that children are especially vulnerable to the pollution that shrouded the skies over much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic this week. NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy joins us. Maria, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: And why are children especially vulnerable?

GODOY: Well, there are actually several reasons. One is that kids breathe faster, and so they take in more air relative to their body weight compared with grown-ups. So they're breathing in more of those tiny particles in smoke that can go down deep into the lungs and trigger inflammation. I spoke to Dr. Lisa Patel about this. She's a pediatrician, and she's also the executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

LISA PATEL: Kids are more susceptible to begin with because their airways are even smaller. So even a smaller amount of inflammation can hit a kid harder as well.

GODOY: She told me that's especially true for kids under the age of 5. She says in general, wildfire smoke exposure can cause symptoms like coughing or sneezing in kids. Where it gets concerning is if they're having trouble breathing so they're wheezing or using their belly muscles to breathe. And in babies that might look like bobbing their heads or grunting to keep their airways open. If you see that, you definitely should call a doctor. And, you know, even pregnant women are at higher risk.

SIMON: And why is that?

GODOY: Well, because studies have shown that repeated exposure to air pollution in general can be harmful even in the womb. There's less evidence specific to wildfires. But I did speak with Dr. Keith Brenner. He's a pulmonologist at Hackensack University Medical Center, and he says studies have shown that particulate matter of the same size that's found in wildfire smoke can impact the development of the fetus.

KEITH BRENNER: So I think that pregnant women should do all they can to avoid, you know, exposures on these days when the levels are so high.

GODOY: And, you know, Brenner says there are also several studies that show hospitalization rates for children with asthma increase when air pollution levels are high.

SIMON: Maria, is wildfire smoke different than other kinds of air pollution?

GODOY: Yeah, actually. One thing that I find really striking is just how bad wildfire smoke is. Dr. Patel told me it's estimated to be 10 times as toxic as air pollution from burning fossil fuels.

PATEL: Knowing that wildfire pollution is actually worse, I think it merits us being a little more careful when it comes to children.

GODOY: She says it's important to keep that in mind because as climate change makes intense wildfires more common, many of us will likely be exposed to this type of air pollution more often.

SIMON: What can parents do to try and keep their children as safe as possible from wildfire smoke, children who, you know, want to be outside and play?

GODOY: Yeah, well, a lot of the advice is the same for kids and adults. So, you know, for starters, make sure to check the air quality where you live by going to the EPA website, There's this nifty color coded meter that shows the air quality in your area. And if the air quality is bad, like in the red or purple zone, it's not a time for outdoor sports or the playground. And definitely have kids mask up if they are going to be spending time outside when air pollution levels are high. And if they protest on the mask, Dr. Patel says, maybe instead of fighting them, just keep them indoors as much as possible. And, you know, one thing is it is hard to find an N95 mask for younger kids, but you can find KN95s that fit pretty well. I know personally I have lots left over from COVID. And then if you're at home, use an air purifier if you've got one. Blast it on high. And also keep the doors and windows closed, and try not to use your gas stove or burn candles or vacuum because that can all add to indoor air pollution.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy, thank you so much.

GODOY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.