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Traffic-Induced Asthma: Could your child be part of the eight percent?

Diane Bailey

Posted September 28, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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Eight percent of childhood asthma cases are a result of living close (within 250 feet) to major roadways, concluded a new report out this week.  Of the many studies associating traffic pollution with asthma, this one evaluating 27,000 asthmatic children in Los Angeles County really drives home the health hazard of pollution from busy roadways (for more, see this and this). 

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These findings confirm our understanding that air pollution not only makes things worse for people with asthma but can actually cause asthma to develop in healthy children.  It is even more sobering when you consider that 45 million Americans live within 300 feet of a highway and many of them are children.  In LA County, 18 percent of children live near busy roads (freeways, highways and “major arterials”).

With traffic-induced asthma affecting so many children, we need to do more to lessen pollution from our roadways and reduce exposure to it by keeping people a reasonable distance away from the busiest, most hazardous roadways.  There are so many policies in place already aimed at cleaning up cars and trucks, yet pollution levels around busy roadways remain stubbornly high. 

One thing about soot particles and other pollutants – they don’t announce where they came from before entering your lungs.  But luckily, there is plenty of research on which kinds of vehicles emit the most pollution.  According to the best vehicle emission modeling tools, diesel trucks emit at least ten times more soot and other traffic pollutants than cars.  Although diesel trucks are getting cleaner over time as modern standards phase in, no one can hold their breath that long. 

So how do we keep people a safe distance from traffic pollution?  Prioritizing the land directly next to freeways for commercial use rather than residential use is one way.  This is especially important as cities seek to increase infill development – an important goal that can improve air quality and public health by making communities more walkable and improving access to public transit.  But planners need to pay close attention to pollution sources, following healthy land use guidelines like these.

For people who live close to busy roadways, there are steps that can be taken to reduce exposure to diesel pollution.  For example a recent study in Barcelona found that people who live in city neighborhoods with more grass and trees were exposed to lower levels of particulate air pollution than those with little vegetation around their homes.  That study focused on pregnant women, who are particularly susceptible, but the findings of reduced pollutant levels associated with more vegetation hold true for everyone.  Special high efficiency air filters can also be used inside homes and schools to help reduce exposure. Final yes on i mail piece_Page_2_Image_0002.jpg

Planting trees and filtering indoor air are a few simple solutions to reducing exposure to harmful particulate pollution, but are no replacement for reducing or eliminating the pollution in the first place.  With an 8 percent increase in asthma from traffic pollution, we better do everything we can do reduce that pollution and minimize exposure to it.  Join us in supporting the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act to preserve and improve air quality standards protecting millions of children.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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