Some Question Strength of Air Quality Recess Guidelines

Mar 6, 2014

When fine particle air pollution along the Wasatch Front reaches the high end of what the Utah Division of Air Quality deems unhealthy, the Utah Department of Health recommends schools keep students inside for recess. But some wonder if that recommendation should come when pollution levels are even lower. Officials with the Utah Asthma Program say discussions about revising those standards are underway.

Tina Taft is picking up her 10-year-old son Tony from Foothills elementary school in Riverton, Utah. On this particular day, it’s an orange air quality day—meaning pollution levels are high enough that the Utah Department of Health recommends schools keep students who have asthma or other respiratory diseases indoors.

Taft, who is a member of the group Utah Mom’s for Clean Air, says Tony doesn’t suffer from any respiratory issues, but in her opinion, all children are sensitive to this level of pollution.  

“I think any medical professional will tell you the same thing,” Taft says. “They’re still developing. They’re very much mouth breathers.”

When we reach the school parking lot, Tony steps into the four-door sedan wearing one of those square surgical masks. Taft says if Tony doesn’t wear a mask she has him excused from recess. Tony says he’s getting used to the teasing from other students.

“I just got one insult” Tony says. “Two actually. I said that’s kind of the thing you wore last Halloween. ‘It’s not Halloween’ he said.”

According to the Division of Air Quality, the air is considered unhealthy for everyone when pm2.5 levels reach 55.5 parts per million, but the department of health doesn’t recommend schools hold indoor recess until those levels reach 90 parts per million.

Taft says that’s too high. That’s why she’s lobbying parents and administrators at Foothill to consider a new recess policy that’s goes beyond the state’s recommendation. But Taft says her efforts have so far been ignored.

Foothill Elementary principal Barbara Yost says she personally feels no urgency to do more than what the state suggests, but if a parent wants his or her child to remain inside, she’ll comply. Yost points out kids aren’t outside for recess more than about 30 minutes a day.

“I’m not an expert on air quality, but I would think these standards have been developed because they feel like they’re safe for kids,” Yost says.

Yost adds there are a number of logistical challenges with keeping students indoors-- especially in the Jordan School District where the student population is growing steadily.

“Whenever we have to keep the entire student body inside for whatever reason, yeah, it takes some planning,” Yost says. “It also requires teachers give up some of their time because kids have to be supervised.”  

Michelle Hofman is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. She helped create the state’s recess guidelines nearly a decade ago. Hofman says the guidelines in place are reasonable, but it’s difficult to come up with blanket approach that’s going to protect the most vulnerable, while allowing healthy people to be active and live their lives. 

“If you’re outside and you need to use your rescue inhaler, your albuterol, then you shouldn’t be outside anymore, that triggers your symptoms,” Hofman says. “I think just listening to your body and making accommodations to avoid exposures that you know are aggravating your symptoms is really the key to any guideline that we would put out there.”

...listening to your body and making accommodations to avoid exposures that you know are aggravating your symptoms is really the key to any guideline that we would put out there. -Michelle Hofman

Hoffman says there is still very little data to inform the guidelines, but researchers do know that during progressive inversions hospitals in the state see more visits.

“We know that it’s doing something,” Hoffman says. “We don’t know what leads to those increased rates. How much of an exposure is it? Is it people who are outside for greater periods of time than a 15 minute recess. Is it 15 minutes every day that week? We don’t have that kind of data to help drive what we would recommend.”

A lack of data is exactly why teachers and administrators at Elizabeth Academy, a Montessori school in Salt Lake City have decided to err on the side of caution—and keep all students inside when pm2.5 levels are in the orange range.

“We talked with our teachers about it and we said what do you think and overwhelmingly, our staff said, we really don’t want our children to be outside if the air is not safe,” says Lisa Carling, business manager at Elizabeth Academy.

She concedes there may not be enough research to support that decision…

“But what is known is that it is an unhealthy range,” Carling says. “And so, we didn’t want to risk the health of our children in having them go out. So we just chose to bump it up.”

Carling says a school like Elizabeth has the funding, space and flexibility to make that decision. But, as in the case of Foothills Elementary School in Riverton, that’s just a luxury that many schools in Utah, do not have. 

Tina Taft tells me, healthy air shouldn’t be a luxury. That’s why she says she’ll keep reaching out to school officials, and parents who argue kids need to be outside getting sunlight and exercise.   

“I can appreciate those things and I once thought the same things as well, but consider this, when they’re outside and there is all of this smog, they’re not getting sunshine,” Taft says.

...consider this, when they’re outside and there is all of this smog, they’re not getting sunshine. -Tina Taft

Thankfully, as the winter inversion season comes to an end, Taft’s son Tony won’t have to stay inside or wear a mask much longer—at least until high Ozone becomes an issue in the warmer months.