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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2021

Outdoor Air Quality

The environment in which children live plays an important role in their health and development. Children may be more vulnerable than adults to the adverse effects of environmental contaminants in air, food, drinking water, and other sources because their bodies are still developing. In addition, children have increased potential for exposure to pollutants because they eat, drink, and breathe more, in proportion to the size of their bodies, than adults. One important measure of children's environmental health is the percentage of children living in areas in which air pollution levels are higher than the allowable levels of the Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards.53 These standards, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, are designed to protect public health, including the health of susceptible populations such as children. Ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are air pollutants associated with increased asthma episodes and other respiratory illnesses in children. These problems can lead to increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations.54, 55, 56, 57 Lead can affect the development of the central nervous system in young children,58 and exposure to carbon monoxide can reduce the capacity of blood to carry oxygen.59

Indicator PHY1: Percentage of children ages 0–17 living in counties with pollutant concentrations above the levels of the current air quality standards, 1999–2019
Indicator PHY1: Percentage of children ages 0–17 living in counties with pollutant concentrations above the levels of the current air quality standards, 1999–2019

NOTE: Percentages are based on the number of children living in counties where measured air pollution concentrations were higher than the level of a Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standard, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at least once during the year. The EPA periodically reviews air quality standards and may change them based on updated scientific findings. The indicator is calculated with reference to the current levels of the air quality standards for all years shown. Measuring concentrations above the level of a standard is not equivalent to violating the standard. The level of a standard may be exceeded on multiple days before the exceedance is considered a violation of the standard. Data were revised since previous publication in America's Children. Values have been recalculated based on updated data in the Air Quality System. For more information on the air quality standards that are used in calculating these percentages, please see https://www.epa.gov/criteria-air-pollutants/naaqs-table.

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Air Quality System.

  • From 1999 to 2019, the percentage of children living in counties with measured pollutant concentrations above the levels of one or more Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards at least once during the year decreased from 76% to 51%.
  • From 1999 to 2019, the percentage of children living in counties with measured ozone concentrations above the level of the current ozone standard at least 1 day during the year decreased from 66% to 46%.
  • In 2019, approximately 20% of children lived in counties with measured concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the level of the current 24-hour PM2.5 standard at least once during the year compared with 55% of children in 1999.
  • From 1999 to 2019, the percentage of children living in counties with measured sulfur dioxide concentrations above the level of the current standard for sulfur dioxide at least 1 day per year declined from 31% to 2%. During the same time frame, the percentage of children living in counties with measured concentrations above the level of the current standard for nitrogen dioxide at least 1 day per year decreased from 23% to 1%.
  • In 2019, the percentage of children living in counties with measured pollutant concentrations above the levels of one or more Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards at least once during the year by race/ethnicity was 40% for White, non-Hispanic children; 37% for American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic children; 52% for Black, non-Hispanic children; 65% for Asian or Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic children; and 68% for Hispanic children.

table icon PHY1 HTML Table

53 This measure does not differentiate between counties in which the Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards are exceeded frequently or by a large margin and counties in which the standards are exceeded only rarely or by a small margin. It also must be noted that this analysis differs from the analysis utilized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the designation of "nonattainment areas" for regulatory compliance purposes.

54 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Integrated science assessment for sulfur oxides—Health criteria (EPA/600/R-17/451). https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/isa/recordisplay.cfm?deid=338596

55 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2016). Integrated science assessment for oxides of nitrogen—Health criteria (EPA/600/R-15/068). https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/isa/recordisplay.cfm?deid=310879

56 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2020). Integrated science assessment of ozone and related photochemical oxidants (EPA/600/R-20/012). https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/isa/recordisplay.cfm?deid=348522.

57 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2019). Integrated science assessment for particulate matter (EPA/600/R-19/188).U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2019). Integrated science assessment for particulate matter https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/isa/recordisplay.cfm?deid=347534

58 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Integrated science assessment for lead (EPA/600/R-10/075F). https://cfpub. epa.gov/ncea/isa/recordisplay.cfm?deid=255721

59 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2010). Integrated science assessment for carbon monoxide (EPA/600/R-09/019F). https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=218686