Minnesota Wildfires

Air quality alerts raise concerns, frustrations about summer activities for kids

Smoky skyline in St. Paul05
The St. Paul skyline, seen from High Bridge Overlook, is obscured by wildfire smoke during the air quality alert on Wednesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

With a record-high 23 air quality alerts so far this year in Minnesota, questions of how to safely participate in valued outdoor summer activities linger — along with the smoke.

Parents of young children have complained of inconsistency when it comes to cancellations of activities like youth sports and summer camps. But doctors say knowing when to step indoors is up to each individual's risk level. Those with asthma, COPD or other respiratory problems need to be most cautious, according to Allina Health pulmonologist Andrew Stiehm. 

“If you notice your kid has a problem, or you have a problem even as an adult, avoidance is often the best therapy,” Stiehm said. “Avoid being outdoors on those days with high Air Quality Indices.”

Elizabeth Kibler's two young kids both have reactive airways, and increased coughing from air pollution can get them sent home from daycare. 

“While a cough isn't enough to stay home from day care, if it is too disruptive, they can be sent home from daycare, which as a full-time working mom can be a lot,” Kibler said.

For those at increased risk, an AQI of 100 may be high enough to consider staying indoors, Stiehm said.

For others, Stiehm generally advises more rest from outdoor exercise when the AQI reaches 150, and at 200, canceling outdoor activities may be best. He added mid- and late-afternoon tends to have the worst air quality levels, so it may be smart to switch up daily routines to accommodate risk. 

Rebecca Sullivan said tennis lessons for her two sons were canceled this week due to air quality alerts. She said it's frustrating that they're not able to enjoy these and other typical summer activities, but she takes health risks from pollution seriously. 

“Our biggest concern is just trying to prevent that irritation, knowing that as they're developing, it can just be really bad and can actually lead to asthma or other respiratory problems,” Sullivan said. “It's just kind of sad that it's causing us to have to be inside during, you know, these really nice months when we'd like to get outside and go to a lake or go for a hike.”

Anika Kaleewoun, of Plymouth, said she chose not to enroll her young kids in outdoor sports after seeing the early effects of air quality this summer. She said though she's enrolled them in indoor camps, pollution has still derailed a planned trip to the North Shore and other important family activities.

She said it's difficult weighing the benefits of physical health and the importance of outdoor play — especially considering the prior impacts of COVID-19 quarantining on her kids' wellbeing. 

“Kids can't just go swimming, they can't just go to the park. You have to look at all this data and information before making a decision about what activity you're going to do today or tomorrow or this weekend, and whether it's worth it or not,” Kaleewoun said. “You want to give your kids all of these experiences, but the calculations that go into it have you thinking, ‘Is it worth it?’”

M Health Fairview pulmonologist Paolo Pianosi said kids tend to fare better than adults when it comes to the health impacts of air pollution. However, he is concerned that if poor air quality continues long-term, it could interfere with lung growth and increase respiratory illnesses. 

Still, Pianosi agrees it's important parents consider mental wellness when weighing the costs and benefits of outdoor activity. 

“One or two days, it's okay to keep the kids indoors, if you're worried,” he said. “But if this drags on, then it's going to be hard to maintain that kind of quarantine. And really, kids should be active and playing outdoors.”

Tell MPR News: How is air quality impacting your summer plans?

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