Another Reason to Stay Away From the Highway
It's been known for some time that kids who live near highways are more apt to develop asthma and other respiratory problems. Now, a new study from the University of Southern California reports that extended exposure to traffic fumes actually impairs lung growth. In fact, the researchers found, living near a freeway was about as harmful as being exposed to second hand smoke.
The researchers followed 3,677 kids for eight years from 12 communities with varying degrees of air quality. By the end of the study, those who lived closest to a freeway had experienced a 3 percent reduction in lung capacity in comparison to those who lived farther away.
"All kinds of kids were susceptible," says lead author, James Gauderman, a professor in USC's department of preventive medicine. The team observed significant changes in lung development regardless of a community's baseline air quality or socioeconomic statusand taking into account participants' other risk factors for diminished lung capacity, such as asthma or exposure to cigarette smoke.
Normally, lung capacity plateaus when people reach their mid-twenties and then begins to shrink at a rate of about 1 percent each year. So kids who grow up near freeways presumably are at a disadvantage later in life when problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease become more common.
There's no quick fix, according to Gauderman. Many of the pollutants from exhaust are ultra fine and can easily infiltrate houses, so playing inside probably won't offer much protection. But community planners should take note, he says. Building a school 300 yards from a freeway is significantly healthier than putting it 200 yards away as there is a significant drop in pollution levels at that distance.
Gennet Paauwe, a spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board, encourages people concerned about this issue to make their views known to local government officials as decisions about placing new schools and housing developments usually occur at that level. California, a leader in combating automobile emissions, has enacted legislation that prohibits new schools from being built within 500 yards of a freeway, a strategy that could serve as a model for other states.
"This report also underscores that people should support clean air programs. Reducing how much you drive by using carpools and transit will cut down on emissions," says Paauwe.