Evaluating air quality risks to infants
May 7, 2014 7:29 PM   Subscribe

We are thinking about starting a family, but are concerned that our house is too near the highway and some other industry for a potential infant. How do we figure out if it is so bad that we should definitely move first?

We know it's not as good as some other neighborhoods in our region, but is it Bad or just Not As Good? Is it perhaps no worse than, say, the entire LA air basin? (No offense; my point is that you folks in LA seem to be doing alright.)

I've been trying to dig up papers and air monitoring data, but it's kind of a steep learning curve. We are surprisingly close to an air monitoring station, so I suspect the raw data actually does exist (with maybe a bit of guesstimating what a difference it makes that we're five blocks closer to the freeway). We just need to figure out how to interpret it.

- Is there one paper that is THE paper about safe air quality standards for prenatal and early-childhood exposures?

- What pollutants should I even be focusing on? PM 2.5, ozone...?

- Is there a researcher or doctor that we might pay to get their expert opinion, something like that?

We are hoping to move in 3-5 years, but financially, it is near-impossible to move right now.
posted by slidell to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Call your local NOAA branch office and ask. In my experience with NOAA employees, they loooooooooooove to chat. The first person you reach may not be able to answer your question, but ask him/her to refer you to someone who can.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:46 PM on May 7, 2014

Best answer: - Is there a researcher or doctor that we might pay to get their expert opinion, something like that?

You might ask these guys, the Los Angeles Community Environmental Enforcement Network, for advice in getting and interpreting the data, along with what mitigation steps you could take. (I googled 'los angeles air quality activist'.)

Based on first principles, your ob-gyn would be another person to talk to about this.

Poor air quality does cause lower birth rate according a study in the Lancet. related: google scholar search "air quality birth weight"

(I'd go with Jacqueline's answer, she's actually looked into this stuff beyond 5 minutes googling.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:50 PM on May 7, 2014

I'd go with Jacqueline's answer, she's actually looked into this stuff beyond 5 minutes googling.

Yeah, I used to work with a bunch of air quality scientists (in an administrative capacity). Trust me: these guys sincerely enjoy talking with people about their work. I don't think I ever met anyone in the field who was just in it for the paycheck -- all of them were sincerely passionate about the environment and public health. They will talk your ear off about it if given half a chance. So don't hesitate to call them (and call around if you don't find a chatty one right off-the-bat). Not only will they most likely appreciate your interest, but your tax dollars pay their salaries.

I specifically suggested NOAA (instead of the EPA, your local Air Quality Board, or your local university) because my impression is that NOAA employees generally have relatively secure funding, so if you call them up to chat they won't feel pressured to get off the phone quick and get back to working on that grant proposal so that they'll still have a job next year. NOAA folks do still have crunch times when various reports are due so if they seem like they can't talk when you first reach them, try asking them if there is a better time in the next few weeks for you to call back.

And although I'm not a scientist and thus can't answer your questions, I did spend 3 years editing various journal articles, technical reports, and grant proposals about particulate matter and thus can confirm that this is indeed serious shit that you should be concerned about. Childhood asthma rates and associated emergency room visits vary tremendously with geography depending on whether the community is downwind from windblown dust sources.

Another approach to take to this problem if you can't move regardless of how bad it is where you live now: research what parents of asthmatic kids do to improve the indoor air quality in their homes and then just do that. It's cheaper than moving and will at least provide a healthy environment for the majority of your baby's time.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:06 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, find out which agency is responsible for the air quality monitoring station you reference in your post, and contact them as well. They most likely already have some sort of public outreach / education program in place with layperson-friendly explanations of how to interpret the data.

These agencies really, really, really WANT the general public to understand this stuff because they know that their ongoing existence depends on political support. Do not feel the slightest bit shy about calling them up and asking all your questions.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:11 PM on May 7, 2014

How do the children in your neighborhood look? Do they appear to be normal? Do you have any neighbors with children who you could ask?
posted by myselfasme at 8:38 PM on May 7, 2014

I've read about the adverse health effects of living near a gas/petrol station, with the worst problems affecting children, the elderly and those with chronic illness. The danger apparently is from ozone, benzene, hexane fumes in the air - benzene is known to be carcinogenic - and from groundwater contamination in the area near the gas station. I would think there would be very similar threats to health from living near a freeway, or even near a stoplight. I managed some apartments a few years ago that sat on a street corner with a stoplight. My apartment was on the second floor and I can tell you that opening windows was simply not done because the air stunk something terrible from the automobile exhaust - and this was with exhaust testing in place so every car on the road had to meet pollution level requirements. Don't kid yourself that all those environmental tests and taxes and such are doing a great deal for the air pollution, at least not near a stoplight or a gas station.

If I were thinking about buying a house, I'd be digging deeply for this information and more because once the damage is done, it's probably permanent, especially for children and infants.

Good thinking on your part! Good luck on your research and your decision, also.
posted by aryma at 10:40 PM on May 7, 2014

Best answer: From Mr. gusaroo, an air quality meteorologist:

There has been and continues to be a major study on the effects of air pollution on children.

Air quality data in bay area can be found at:
http://gate1.baaqmd.gov/aqmet/AQMonthly.aspx or

AQ Standards can be seen at the latter site.
posted by Gusaroo at 8:50 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, there was an interactive map in the LA Times recently, so you can see just how polluted your area is and where near you (if anywhere) it gets less polluted.
posted by mogget at 11:56 AM on May 8, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all the help, everyone! To be clear, I live in Oakland, though I can see why it sounded like I was saying I live in LA. Jacqueline, I couldn't figure out what branch office covers Oakland from that attachment. Do you know?

I'll see how far I can get with this online information and calling up agency help lines. I'm still wondering -- the same way there are engineers who can tell you if your foundation is sound, are there public health consultants who can evaluate the data for your particular situation? For instance, I found this study with some great information ("we also observed a dose–response relationship of birth weight with average O3[24hr] that was clearest above 30-ppb exposure levels"), but I have found 8-hour ozone ratings, and max 24-hour ratings, and annual averages and am asking "hmm, is the annual average the same as the average of 24-hour averages?" It's complex enough that I'm thinking I should get someone to check my work when I'm done, if I can.

But this information is a great start -- thanks!
posted by slidell at 1:24 PM on May 8, 2014

« Older Family-friendly northern DC dining?   |   I don't know if I like the person I'm becoming. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.