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Fellowship Project: What Are Our Kids Breathing?

Fellowship Project: What Are Our Kids Breathing?

Picture of Christina Elston

If you live in L.A. County, and especially if you've driven back to the Los Angeles basin from somewhere else, you've seen it. A steely brown haze hangs over us for much of the year. We live in the smoggiest region in the United States (according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District), but for those raising children here it may not be top of mind. In some parts of the county, moms claw their way onto waiting lists for the "right" preschool while they are still pregnant. Concerns about finding the right neighborhood, the right school, about keeping kids away from gangs and drugs or getting them to turn off the Xbox and do some homework tend to take center stage. The air we breathe gets plenty of media coverage, but we tend to consider it more of an inconvenience than an emergency.

Yet at every stage of children's lives – from their time in the womb until they're ready to leave the nest – the pollution in the air impacts their health. Though they don't voice their conclusions this simply, a number of recent studies assert that:

• Babies exposed to air pollution in the womb are more likely to grow poorly in utero, be smaller in both weight and length at birth, and suffer from poor neurological development and greater risk of chronic diseases later in life. ("Air pollution exposure during pregnancy and reduced birth size: a prospective birth cohort study in Valencia, Spain," Ballester et al. Environmental Health 2010, 9:6)

• Children exposed to air pollution – especially the type created by freeway traffic – early in life are more likely to develop asthma in preschool. ("Effect of Early Life Exposure to Air Pollution on Development of Childhood Asthma," Clark et al. Environmental Health Perspectives, Feb. 2010)

• Tweens and teens living within 500 meters of a freeway from ages 10 to 18 are more likely to have underdeveloped lungs compared with those who do not. And because the lungs are finished developing at age 18, this is likely to be permanent. Ambient air pollution away from freeways also impacts lung development in kids who don't live near freeways – so those who do get a double dose. ("Effects of exposure to traffic on lung development from 10 to 18 years of age: a cohort study," Gauderman et al. The Lancet, Jan. 2007)

My California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship project will help the parents of Los Angeles County understand what they and their children breathe on a daily basis, and what that does to their children's lives.

Looking at the latest research and talking with the experts behind it is certainly one element of this. I want to show parents how to find out what is in their air, where it comes from, and what exposure to ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, lead, and particulate matter of different measures physically does to the body. But I would also like to step back and look at the broader impact.

What is life like for a baby who is born prematurely, a kid who has chronic asthma, a teen who has always been sick? How does this impact their friendships, their education, their self-confidence and how they see the world? Does it change the way they grow up? Does it shape the type of adult they become? For this part of the project I'll talk to NICU doctors and school nurses, teachers, psychologists, parents and kids to see how the air children breathe changes the lives they live.

Another facet of the topic I would like to examine is socio-economic/political. Socio-economic status tends to appear in air pollution studies as something that has to be "controlled for." But, honestly, who lives near freeways? People who can't afford to live anywhere else. And how much political power do these people wield? Is it surprising that most of them are more concerned with paying the bills and putting food on the table than with advocating for cleaner air – even though the air they are breathing is making their children sick?

Along with an article in L.A. Parent, multimedia components of the project could include blog posts (to give readers a chance to comment on their own situations), video interviews with kids and parents or video tours of freeway-proximate neighborhoods and schools that put kids at risk, and even an online resource center on our website (LAParent.com) to connect parents with resources that can help them do everything from get air quality reports to connect with health research about the impacts of air pollution and clinical trials of new asthma treatments, or advocate for improved air quality from a political standpoint.

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Want to improve your data journalism skills?  Apply now for the $2,000 California Data Fellowship -- four all-expenses-paid days of training on data acquisition, analysis and visualization, a $2,000 reporting grant and six months of expert mentoring.  Dates:  October 17-20. Deadline: August 27.

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