Air Pollution

​​Air pollution includes the particles, dust, chemicals and other contaminants that get in the air we breathe and into our lungs. It is hazardous to everyone, but especially children.

Air pollution can turn a child’s life upside-down. While playing outside on a sunny day, high air pollution levels can cause sickness and trigger asthma and chronic conditions. It can force kids inside when they should be outside with friends. For some, even their indoor environments can be dangerous with the threats of carbon monoxide and radon.

We created this page to describe the types of air pollution commonly found in the Philadelphia region, and to provide techniques and tips to reduce your child’s exposure.

Child suffering allergies and sneezing from pollen. In a park.
Smoke stacks at factory emitting pollution.

What exactly is air pollution?

Air pollution can occur both outdoors and indoors. Common air pollutants include particulate matter, lead (Pb), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3). In addition, there are other hazardous air pollutants some of which can cause cancer. Air pollution adversely affects children’s growth and development and can cause asthma and make asthma worse. Air pollution can also impact the health and growth of babies before they are born.

What pollutes outdoor air?

Traffic emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, industry and construction are man-made sources of outdoor air pollution. Volcano eruptions, wildfires and sandstorms are examples of natural sources of outdoor air pollution.

What pollutes indoor air?

Indoor air pollution includes second-hand smoke, household chemicals and fumes from burning, cooking and heating fuel. Furniture, carpet and clothing can ‘off-gas’ chemicals that add to indoor air pollution. Pets, mold and insects also produce animal dander, fungal spores and insect antigens that can get in the air and irritate the respiratory tract and cause allergies.

Some indoor air pollution can originate from outdoors, such as fumes from idling vehicles outside an open window.

Kids and parents at daycare center.

Indoor air quality and schools

Old school buildings may contain lead paint and asbestos insulation. Inadequate ventilation and poorly maintained HVAC systems may increase indoor particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide levels.

Mold may grow in rooms with water damage and high humidity levels. Leaking pipes and roofs are particularly prevalent in schools and some child-care centers as the buildings are old. Damaged asbestos containing materials can suspend asbestos fibers in the air.

Air pollution and children's health

Air pollution has been associated with low birth weight and premature birth. After birth, air pollution places the child at risk for lung diseases such as asthma. Air pollution also exacerbates asthma and increases the risk of respiratory tract infection in younger children. Some studies suggest neurobehavioral function is negatively impacted by air pollution.

Particulate matter comes in different diameters - PM10, PM2.5 and PM1. The lower number refers to the size of the particulate matter. The smaller that number, the more likely it is to be absorbed into the children's lungs.

Child coughing from asthma attack in park.

How do I protect my children?

Graphic art of a house with multiple rooms, basement and garage

If you smoke, only smoke outside the home. Secondhand, and even thirdhand smoke (chemicals and nicotine that settle on surfaces), can trigger an asthma attack.

Avoid air fresheners, candles and harsh cleaners. You can find healthier cleaners on this website.

Choose “low-VOC” products (example: paints).

Use a stove hood while cooking. With gas stoves, use an exhaust fan vented to the outdoors.

Fix water leaks, even small ones. Check the house for water damage, remove mold and avoid excessive moisture indoors.

Let the fresh air in! Open your windows regularly with the pollen is low and the air quality is good.

Wet dust and wet mop regularly to remove dust.

Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Philadelphia residents can have a free smoke detector installed by the Fire Department by calling 311 or by placing a request here.

Test for radon in the basement and 1st floors.

Know your local Air Quality Index and avoid letting your children outdoors for exercise when air pollution levels are high. Sign up for Air Quality alerts at airnow.gov

If your children have allergies to pollen, know your local pollen index and avoid letting your children play outside when the pollen levels are high. You can find pollen levels in your area by visiting The Weather Chanel’s website.

How do I protect my children?

Find out how you can make a difference in your child's health with these quick tips.

  • Wet dust and wet mop regularly to remove dust.
  • Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Philadelphia residents can have a free smoke detector installed by the Fire Department by calling 311 or by placing a request here.
  • Test for radon in the basement and 1st floors.
  • Know your local Air Quality Index and avoid letting your children outdoors for exercise when air pollution

Our Air Pollution Programs

Hazard Assessments for Asbestos in Schools

Assessments of schools for asbestos hazards, health risks and education.

Learn More
Teachers in a classroom for training

Teachers Institute of Philadelphia Environmental Health Curriculum

Teacher training to develop curriculum on environmental health topics.

Learn More
Tired child being observed by two doctors.

Regional Consultations on Environmental Health

Consultations for clinicians caring for patients with lead poisoning and environmental health issues

Learn More
Toddler playing in a sandbox.

Pilot Project Funding

Funding for researchers and nonprofit organizations for innovative children’s environmental health research and implementing that research in the community.

Learn More
Toddler playing with toys at a daycare center.

Webinars for Childcare Providers

Videos specifically for childcare centers and schools on environmental health topics.

Learn More
Doctor using stethoscope while mother holds child.

Prescriptions for Prevention Program

This program screens patients for environmental risks and automatically provides them and their healthcare providers with printed counseling materials.

Learn More
Researcher with beakers.

Workshops and Continuing Education for Researchers

To enhance basic research skills that pertain to children’s environmental health, we will strongly encourage early-stage investigators and researchers to enroll in workshops and continuing education courses.

Learn More

AirNow.gov Air Quality Alerts

Did you know that there are sensors throughout our region that monitor air quality and predict tomorrow’s air pollution levels?

Use the map below to view the Air Quality Index (AQI) for your neighborhood, and plan in advance when to keep children, the elderly or other vulnerable populations indoors.

Philadelphia Current Conditions

Air Quality Map

Center Members Researching Air Pollution

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Derek Shendell, D.Env., MPH

Derek Shendell, D.Env., M.P.H., is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice at…

Learn More
Usha Sankar
Drexel University

Usha Sankar, PhD

Usha Sankar, PhD, is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Biology Department at Drexel University. Prior to joining…

Learn More
Stephanie Mayne
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania

Stephanie Mayne, PhD, MHS

Stephanie Mayne is an epidemiologist whose research focuses on the relationship of neighborhood environmental exposures with child well-being,…

Learn More
Dr. Inkyu Han
Temple University

Inkyu Han, PhD, MPH

Inkyu Han is a multidisciplinary environmental health scientist in exposure assessment and environmental epidemiology. Environmental exposure and community…

Learn More
Dr. Jane Clougherty
Drexel University

Jane E. Clougherty, MSc, ScD

Jane E. Clougherty is a Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) at the Drexel University Dornsife School…

Learn More
Dr. Hyunok Choi
Lehigh University

Hyunok Choi, PhD, MPH

Hyunok Choi is the Associate Professor and Director of the Children’s Environmental Precision Health Institute at Lehigh University….

Learn More
Dr. Jessica Rice
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Jessica Rice, DO, MHS

Jessica Rice is an attending physician with the Division of Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine at the Children’s Hospital…

Learn More
Dr. Carsten Skarke
University of Pennsylvania

Carsten Skarke, MD

Carsten Skarke is the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Fellow in Translational Medicine and Therapeutics and currently an Adjunct…

Learn More
Dr. Aimin Chen
University of Pennsylvania

Aimin Chen, MD, PhD

Aimin Chen is the Co-Director of the Philadelphia Regional Center for Children’s Environmental Health. He is Professor of…

Learn More
Dr. Jianghong Liu
University of Pennsylvania

Jianghong Liu, PhD, FAAN

Jianghong Liu is the Marjorie O. Rendell Endowed Professor in Healthy Transitions at the School of Nursing at…

Learn More
Dr. Sharon McGrath-Morrow
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania

Sharon McGrath-Morrow, MBA, MD

Sharon McGrath-Morrow is the Associate Division Chief in Pulmonary and Sleep at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Co-Principal…

Learn More
Dr. Heather Burris
University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Heather Burris, MD, MPH

Heather Burris, is a founding member of Philadelphia Regional Center for Children’s Environmental Health. Heather is a practicing…

Learn More
Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy
Villanova University

Ruth McDermott-Levy, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN

Ruth McDermott-Levy is a Professor and Co-Director the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment (US Region…

Learn More

Get updated on the latest children's environmental health resources and research.

Join our email list

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Scroll to Top