As Wildfire Smoke Recedes, Parents of Young Children Worry About the Next Time

Young children and toddlers are especially susceptible to pollutants in wildfire smoke. Concerned parents ponder a world in which that happens “routinely.”

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Arthur Steubing, 3, and his sister, Vesper Steubing 5, standing outside their family's home in New York last week, wearing masks to protect themselves from wildfire smoke from Canada that was blanketing the city. Credit: Wilhelmina PeragineArthur Steubing, 3, and his sister, Vesper Steubing 5, standing outside their family's home in New York last week, wearing masks to protect themselves from wildfire smoke from Canada that was blanketing the city. Credit: Wilhelmina Peragine
Arthur Steubing, 3, and his sister, Vesper Steubing, 5, standing outside their family's home in New York last week, wearing masks to protect themselves from wildfire smoke from Canada that was blanketing the city. Credit: Wilhelmina Peragine

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For once, Clare Johnson wasn’t the only one in her family talking about the effects of climate change on children.

Usually, Johnson finds herself initiating conversations about the specific perils of global warming when it comes to young people. But last Tuesday morning, as the skies above her Brooklyn neighborhood turned ashen gray, and then a Martian orange, her phone began to buzz with activity.

“Everybody I talked to was talking about the smoke,” said Johnson, a 36-year-old mother of a 5-year-old and a 13-month-old. “I spent a lot of time during the day trying to process as I was sitting in my apartment trying to work. I just kept walking into my son’s room and looking at how the quality of the light kept changing to darker and darker. And I just was getting more and more emotional as the day went on just feeling really worried about the kids.”

As the smoke from a series of massive Canadian wildfires blanketed much of the eastern half of the United States in a gauzy haze during the past week, parents like Johnson grappled with a set of distinctive challenges of their own: explaining a series of fast-moving and confusing events to their children even while taking whatever precautions they could to protect them.


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Some parents arranged for early pick-ups from school or kept their children home entirely. Others resorted to masking and operating air filters day and night. And even as smoke began to clear in many areas during the weekend, there was a widespread apprehension that what much of the country witnessed last week was the start of something that might become more common if the most dire effects of climate change are not addressed.

“We haven’t in the Northeast seen as much of the kind of day to day impact of climate change,” Johnson said. “The wildfires tend to be in the West. The floods have been in the South. This felt really like you can imagine this being something that happened routinely. And that’s super upsetting and super alarming.”

Perhaps sensing that feeling of alarm, federal environmental officials on Thursday called attention to the resources that they have produced to keep the public informed of changes in air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency’s website,—which features an interactive map of smoke and fire conditions around the country, featured a special alert on the hazy conditions beginning Wednesday.

The site also featured tips for how to reduce exposure to potentially harmful air both indoors and outdoors, as well as advice for dealing with an evacuation.

Two months ago, the agency issued a report, “Climate Change and Children’s Health and Well-Being in the United States,” that offered special guidance for how children are impacted by some of the effects of global warming, including extreme heat events, flooding and poor air quality.

Among the report’s findings: if the average temperature increases by 4 degrees celsius, that could result in more than a half a million new cases of hay fever, nearly 90,000 new cases of asthma and about 15,000 emergency room visits related to asthma.

On average, there will be a 4 percent to 11 percent increase in newly diagnosed asthma cases because of an expected uptick in ozone and particulate matter and wildfire smoke could drive that increase, according to the report. Wildfire smoke, which is made up of numerous air pollutants, may also increase emergency room visits, respiratory illness and affect birth outcomes.

Those figures are particularly concerning to Johnson, who is a member of a group called Climate Families NYC, an organization of children and caregivers who are fighting for an end to fossil fuels.

Wilhelmina Peragine, another member of the group who lives in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, said she skimmed the report just before smoke filled the sky last week. A 38-year-old mother to a 3-year-old son, Arthur Steubing, and a 5-year-old daughter, Vesper Steubing, Peragine said she’s not sure how many parents know about it, but believes it can become part of everyday conversations when wildfires and other climate change-related events show up at our doorsteps.

“I think so many of these things are like we find out about it when you have to,” said Peragine. “And, you know, going to the doctor and having a doctor sort of like tell you about climate change. It’s more and more just like commonplace conversation.”

Her 5-year-old was anxious when she went outside and saw the smoke. “She made a frustrated face and donned her mask and said, ‘You know, now we have to wear masks outside. Before we were wearing masks inside,’” said Peragine.

Children actually inhale more polluted air than adults. and that’s one of the reasons why the EPA recommended that they wear masks outdoors last week. Young children have higher respiration rates than adults—toddlers typically take as many as 40 breaths per minute, twice as many as those over 18—and they are especially vulnerable to poor air quality events. And, because of their short stature, the young are typically closer to the ground, where pollutant levels can reach peak levels. Since their bodies are still developing, children are vulnerable to some impacts from contaminated air that are less common in adults, but can plague them after they grow up. Exposure to air pollution can even harm brain development.

“Children like my own are at risk today and are inheriting a future that they had little or no role in creating for themselves,” said Jeremy Martinich, chief of the EPA’s Climate Science and Impacts Branch and a co-author of the report.

Martinich, who is a father of three children, said this is one of the first times that the agency looked at a number of impacts of climate change and analyzed how it would impact children in this country.

“Current generations of children and future generations of children are going to face heightened risks of climate change,” Martinich said. “And this report really starts trying to raise awareness of what those risks are, and we’re hoping that this information can help get in the hands of clinicians and pediatricians and teachers and other trusted deliverers and sources of information who can amplify the important content of this report and get it in the hands of caregivers and parents.” 

Furthermore, a child is not just a small adult. Kari Nadeau, the interim director of The Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said a child’s metabolism runs faster than an adult’s.

“Their lungs are developing, many of their organs are developing,” Nadeau said. “So exposures like air pollution, exposures like an infectious disease due to climate change or exposures like an extreme weather condition—like a flood or a tornado or heat stress due to climate change—all of those things have a more profound effect on children than adults.”

Looking back on the events of last week, Lauren Hibbs of Philadelphia, who is a 38-year-old teacher, said it all makes sense. Her son, Leo, 5, who has asthma, also had the flu. He stayed home and it seemed like “everything was happening all at once.” 

Sometimes she worries about what the wildfire smoke might do to her son’s lungs in the future. As a Black mother, she knows children of color are more likely exposed to pollutants than their white counterparts—the report says that children of color are more likely to develop asthma because of exposure to particulate matter.

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“I think after COVID he’s like prepared for anything to happen,” she said of Leo. “Just like one day we had to wear masks all the time, or it’s not safe to play with other kids right now. This is what he knows.”

When she thinks about her son, and her students, and how they will prepare for the next event, she thinks of her grandfather and how he used to talk about air raid drills.

“Are we just waiting for the next shoe to drop?” she asked. 

Back in New York, Peragine said Monday that her mom friends now routinely check the air quality and text with updates.

And one of them, Clare Johnson, hopes the momentum will keep going.

“I think moments like this are different,” she said. “I do really think that everybody is taking notice of this. This is, like, enough of an extreme that people are alarmed.”

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