global map of respiratory health risk to children

Children living in red zones experience the greatest risk of respiratory impacts from air pollution. (Photo Credit: NASA/NYU Marron.)

Of all the health risks a growing child may face, air pollution may be the least conspicuous. Around the world, driven by massive wildfires, belching smokestacks, and the compounding effects of climate change, contaminated air remains a growing and serious hazard.

While the April 2022 marking of Earth Day reflects the public's appetite to protect the environment on behalf of a new generation, U.S. action to safeguard air quality specifically has been sporadic since the first Earth Day in 1970. That year, major revisions to the Clean Air Act were passed, and 1978 brought a federal ban on fluorocarbon gasses in aerosol products. Though interwoven with ongoing United Nations work to combat climate change, the global health hazards from breathing polluted air have spread widely and increased to levels not experienced in decades.

To address these concerning trends, researchers in NYU’s Marron Institute have partnered with NASA atmospheric scientists and are now developing a streamlined air quality monitoring index. It will allow local and regional governments as well as individual households anywhere in the world to size-up the risk that children in particular would face playing outdoors or heading off to school on any given day.

The online tool is the work of the Health, Environment and Policy Program at the Marron Institute of Urban Management, with collaboration from NYU doctoral researchers Laura Gladson and Marya Ghazipura, and associate professor Kevin Cromar, as well as NASA atmospheric scientists K. Emma Knowland, Christopher Keller, and Bryan Duncan, and UNICEF, a project stakeholder that will make use of the data to help improve children’s well-being.

NYU News asked Gladson to explain the new air quality index and its potential for helping us all, perhaps, to breathe a bit easier.

Q.  Air pollution seems to have taken a back seat to larger climate concerns. Would you agree?

That unfortunately appears to be true. Air pollution may be less recognized because of the overwhelming number of environmental issues gaining their own well-deserved attention.

Yet the threats to air quality are not going to disappear by themselves. Air quality is growing worse in many parts of the world, particularly countries like India and China where industrialization is in the early stages and coal-fired power plants are being built to support economic growth and energy access.

Many U.S. businesses, meanwhile, have relocated their polluting activities overseas to avoid regulatory penalties, exposing the world’s most disadvantaged populations to dangerous levels of air pollution. Recent estimates place air pollution as one of the top, if not the top, causes of deaths worldwide. Outdoor air pollution is linked to more than 4 million deaths a year.

Even in the U.S., national air quality limits set by the EPA are still higher than recommended by the world’s leading air quality experts, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths annually from air pollution. Climate change is also increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires, which may counteract much of the progress made on air quality in the U.S. over the past five decades.

Particularly for children, what risks exist from continuous exposure to bad air?

One of the most well-understood consequences of early exposure to air pollution is asthma. This disease not only affects a child’s day-to-day life but can impact their physical and social development, and can even result in early death.

But air pollutants don’t always stay in the lungs; they can also enter the bloodstream and reach other organs including the brain, resulting in cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurological harm during childhood or later in life. Even in the womb, a mother’s exposure to air pollution can result in preterm or low weight births that have their own lasting effects on the child.

When comparing risk, instead of comparing across different cities, it may be better to think about where within each city a child lives and plays. High-traffic roads and polluting industries are more frequently built alongside neighborhoods and schools with lower incomes or higher proportions of racial and ethnic minorities, so it is these children who will experience the highest exposures and worst health impacts. Whether in the U.S. or abroad, it is almost always the most disadvantaged children who breathe the worst air.

How did your air quality index project come about?

The goal was to provide meaningful information for low- and middle-income countries that can protect children’s health from outdoor air pollution. In the current first step, we’ve created a new air quality index that accompanies a global air pollution forecasting tool  (GEOS-CF) from NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. This GEOS-CF model–and the accompanying air quality index can provide forecasts of daily health risks from air pollution for any location, even those without extensive ground-based monitoring networks. NASA recently published a news highlight of this collaborative effort with details on this model and the supercomputing resources used to make these estimates.

What types of pollutants go into the design of this new air quality index?

Our index uses concentrations from three key air pollutants: fine particulate matter , ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide, all of which are associated with childhood respiratory disease. The weighting of these pollutants in the index was based on values derived from epidemiological studies conducted around the world. It was then evaluated in a sample of 804 global cities using historical GEOS-CF estimates.

How will the project unfold?

We have ongoing research funding from NASA, led by Dr. Cromar, to engage in capacity-building efforts to help local air quality agencies in both Latin America and Africa. Local officials in Rio (Brazil), Quito (Ecuador), Kigali (Rwanda), and Kampala (Uganda) have teamed up on this project to evaluate and improve their risk communication practices.

I’m one of several doctoral researchers who has had the opportunity to engage in this exciting applied-science work. Dr. Marya Ghazipura, an epidemiologist, played a critical role in the meta-analysis of health studies on childhood respiratory risk. Noussair Lazrak, a doctoral student in Morocco and Fulbright Scholar at Marron, is also working on the project to improve air pollution estimates using machine learning techniques.

What would success look like to your team?

Essentially, we want to get each of these global cities to a level where they have a well-designed air quality communication tool that their environmental agencies can operate and maintain independently. Our work with each city will involve performing a location-specific health analysis and developing or updating their current air quality index as needed so that it’s a true reflection of local air pollution-related health risks on an everyday basis. NASA data forecasting products are critical to this work, providing the air pollution estimates that cities can integrate into their daily index calculations going forward.

Given the growing threats from global warming, how hopeful are you that children’s exposure to air pollution will be reduced?

The reason my colleagues and I do this work is because we continuously hope for and observe improvements in the quality of life for children, especially those experiencing harmful and unfair exposures. The climate is absolutely in crisis, and it can feel so disheartening at times, but there’s also incredible work being done by local communities that the public doesn’t often hear about. However much or little hope you have, it’s always worth taking the small steps you can to lessen the suffering. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation—we can and we are changing lives through this work, and every child’s life we can save matters.