Highway air pollution still a big public health threat

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Air quality near major roads is still harming the lung function of children. @bberwyn photo.

Kids living close to highways suffer from reduced lung function

Staff Report

Despite increased efforts to control pollution from vehicles and industrial sources, young children are still being exposed to harmful levels of particulates that impair lung function.

A long-term health study shows that, by age eight, the lung function of children living within 100 meters of a major roadway was on average 6 percent lower than that of children living 400 meters or more away.

The study was one of the first to examine childhood exposure to air pollution after big improvements to urban air quality in the 1990s, explained lead author Dr. Mary B. Rice. The findings are published the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care, a journal of the American Thoracic Society.

The scientists tracked the health of  614 children born to mothers who enrolled between 1999 and 2002 in Project Viva, a long-term study of women’s and children’s health in eastern Massachusetts. To reach their findings, the authors calculated the distance from the child’s home to the nearest major highway, and estimated first year of life, lifetime and prior-year exposure to PM2.5, using satellite measurements. They also estimated first year of life, lifetime and prior-year exposure to black carbon using 148 monitoring stations.

At age eight, children underwent lung function tests. Researchers found:

  • Children living the closest to major highways had the greatest reductions in their lung function.
  • Recent air pollution exposures most negatively impacted lung function measures.
  • Children who experienced greater improvements in air quality after the first year of life (either due to a move or changes in local pollution around the home) had better lung function compared to those whose air quality did not improve as much.

:This adds to the urgency for more work to understand the impacts of these low-level exposures on human health,” wrote Cora S. Sack, MD, and Joel D. Kaufman, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington, in an accompanying editorial, explaining that the study was done in an area that complies with standards set by the EPA under the Clean Air Act.

The study will follow these children into adolescence.

“We plan to evaluate if the benefits of cleaner air endure by investigating if children with the greatest improvements in air quality continue to have better lung function than their peers in the teen years.” Dr. Rice said.

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