Alberta Uni Project Aims to Aid Kids' Breathing in Wildfires

Children in daycares could be breathing easier during wildfire season, thanks to a new University of Alberta research project.

A set of recommendations for outdoor and indoor air quality monitoring has been drawn up for Alberta's child-care centres, through a collaboration between two experts in the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

"In the face of more intense wildfire seasons in Alberta, there are also more days with poor-quality air, so we really want to provide information that can empower child-care centres to promote the health of little ones in a way that is accessible and actionable," says Amina Hussein, professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"Keeping your child's lungs healthy means more healthy days and more days your child is in daycare learning and growing. Helping daycares and parents minimize the risk of exposure to unhealthy levels of chemicals in the air is preventive health at its best," adds Department of Pediatrics professor Anne Hicks, clinical lead for the Children's Environmental Health Clinic, and a member of the Alberta Respiratory Centre and Women and Children's Health Research Institute

The recommendations Hussein and Hicks compiled will help child-care centre staff assess the health risk to their tiny clients during events such as wildfires, when air quality is poor. 

Babies and children are more vulnerable than adults to air pollution and wildfire smoke, notes Hicks, a pediatric respirologist.

"They tend to be more active than adults, and with their higher breathing rate and small body size, that means more exposure per body weight than an adult." 

Poor-quality air also affects their growth and development, she adds.

To form their recommendations, the researchers consulted with child-care centres such as the University Infant Toddler Centre and drew on a wide range of scientific data and studies about the health risks of air pollution. That includes risk from fine particulate matter, a major component of wildfire smoke.

U of A researchers Amina Hussein (front) and Anne Hicks are pictured at a desk with the Government of Canada's Air Quality Health Index showing on a computer monitor. (Photo: Bev Betkowski)
Researchers Amina Hussein (right) and Anne Hicks developed recommendations to help child-care centre staff assess and minimize the health risk of air pollution to their young clients during events such as wildfires. (Photo: Bev Betkowski)

Fine particulate matter is tiny enough to enter the lungs — and very fine particulate matter can enter the bloodstream — causing irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, mild cough, wheezing and headaches. At higher levels, the matter can cause more frequent and serious respiratory problems in children, such as asthma flare-ups and a higher risk that viral infections will lead to bronchiolitis.

Along with high-risk days, prolonged exposure — even to moderate levels of air pollution — can also pose serious health risks, notes Hicks, who was co-author of a study showing that more than 12,000 fewer people would die annually if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed the cutoff for safe air quality to the level recommended by the American Thoracic Society, slightly more stringent than current standards.

The recommendations, which Hussein and Hicks will update as new scientific data is discovered, provide more information about air quality monitoring and the interpretation of the Government of Canada's Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) for at-risk groups.

The AQHI considers three common air pollutants: fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, using mortality data — how likely people are to die from poor air quality — to calculate risk. 

"That outcome has the most validated data, but we should also be concerned about morbidity — negative health outcomes like hospital visits for breathing problems, and the long-term impacts of breathing air chemicals — for our children," Hicks says. 

Hicks adds that it would be helpful if the interpretation guide for the AQHI could provide recommendations about the potential long-term health risks of being outside at moderate to moderately severe levels of air pollution, especially for higher-risk groups like infants, young children and children with asthma or other lung diseases. She notes that more research may be needed to develop this information.

"It is important for children and families to take air pollution into consideration with their day-to-day activities."

Along with that concern, local AQHI readings are reported based on three-hour rolling average measurements, Hussein notes. "That means there can be a lag that may not reflect the rapid changes in air quality that happen with wildfire smoke." 

Getting a better reading of air quality

The researchers' recommendations lay out steps for assessing the risk of outdoor play, by obtaining local AQHI measurements immediately beforehand and throughout the day. But rather than relying solely on that data, child-care centres can also consider investing in air monitors, known as microsensors, outdoors in their own play areas, or use publicly available data from nearby sensors, as an additional source of information. 

Microsensors are compact, relatively affordable devices that specifically detect small particulate matter in the air. Installed by various private and public users across Canada, including in Alberta, they provide localized readings of particulate matter. At the same time, AQHI continuous air monitoring stations across the province provide regional air quality data on all three of the major air pollutants. 

"Using both methods together gives a more detailed assessment of nearby air pollution in real time, increasing the opportunity for child-care centres to make informed decisions about being outdoors," Hussein notes. 

To make that combined information easier for daycare staff to access, U of A software engineering students developed a user-friendly dashboard. 

The digital tool, which is still being refined before becoming publicly available, automatically reports both the AQHI values and microsensor readings on a single, accessible platform. 

The dashboard is designed to pinpoint a daycare's location and then share the values from the nearest AQHI station and the three closest microsensors, "so the daycare can do risk assessment for its chosen air quality cutoff," says Hussein.

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