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USC researchers link asthma in children to highway proximity

Young children who live near a major road are significantly more likely to have asthma than children who live further away, according to a study that appears in the May 1 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study found that children living within 75 meters (about 82 yards) of a major road had a 50 percent greater risk of exhibiting asthma symptoms in the past year than were children who lived more than 300 meters (about 328 yards) away.

Higher traffic volumes on the different roads were also related to increased rates of asthma.

“These findings are consistent with an emerging body of evidence that local traffic around homes and schools may be causing an increase in asthma,” said lead author Rob McConnell, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine. “This is a potentially important public health problem because many children live near major roads.”

More than 5,000 children ages 5 to 7 were involved in the study, which was an expansion of the Children’s Health Study currently underway in 13 southern California communities. The researchers determined how far each participating child lived from a major road—a freeway, large highway or a feeder road to a highway.

“These results suggest that living in residential areas with high traffic-related pollution significantly increases the risk of childhood asthma,” said David A. Schwartz, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the primary agency that funded the study. “Children with no parental history of asthma who had long-term exposure or early-life exposure to these pollutants were among the most susceptible.”

Children who lived at the same residence since age 2 had slightly higher rates of asthma than those who had moved to the residence later.

“That is what you would expect if the asthma was being caused by traffic,” McConnell said. Risk for wheeze also decreased the further away a home was from a major road, dropping to background rates at roughly 150 meters (not quite two blocks).

Study sites included the cities of Alpine, Anaheim, Glendora, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Elsinore, Long Beach, Mira Loma, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Dimas, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Upland. McConnell noted that air pollution regulations typically focus on regional air pollutants rather than localized exposures within communities, such as living near a busy road, that may also be a problem.

“We’ve taken some tentative steps to address that. For example, a law that a new school can’t be built within 500 feet of a freeway. But we have to also consider whether building parks, play areas, or homes right next to a major road is a wise land use decision in terms of health.” McConnell and his colleagues plan to follow up with a subgroup of the children to measure pollutants in their homes and also to look at characteristics that may make children more susceptible (or more protected), such as genetic characteristics.

This study was supported by the NIEHS, California Air Resources Board, the Southern California Particle Center and Supersite, the Environmental Protection Agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, and the Hastings Foundation.

Rob McConnell, Kiros Berhane, Ling Yao, Michael Jerrett, Fred Lurmann, Frank Gilliland, Nino Kunzli, Jim Gauderman, Ed Avol, Duncan Thomas and John Peters, “Traffic, Susceptibility and Childhood Asthma,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 114, Number 5, May 2006.

USC researchers link asthma in children to highway proximity

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