Busy Roads, Air Pollution and Environmental Health Risks

A number of important studies over the last several years have linked children's respiratory health problems with high densities of vehicular roadway traffic.
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A number of important studies over the last several years have linked children's respiratory health problems with high densities of vehicular roadway traffic. Using modern geographic mapping techniques, health researchers have concluded that the proximity of roadways to places where children spend a great deal of their day experience higher than acceptable levels of exposure to air pollution.

Presently there are only a few ways a parent could check on air quality in their community and many of these websites don't incorporate modern interactive mapping features. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services has recently declared that DHHS needs to make health data more useful to citizens. Perhaps a good place to begin would be with interactive maps that help identify asthma corridors and help parents keep their kids out of them.

I live in the Los Angeles area, well-known for its polluted air, so I would expect that the best internet sites would be here. But as you will see at the South Coast Air Quality District site, information is for very broad regions and does not reveal neighborhood exposures, nor the exact locations of childcare facilities, schools, parks, playgrounds. Hourly traffic volumes are also absent. To add these locations and traffic volumes would not seem be that difficult and it would certainly improve the usefulness of the map for citizens.

If you don't live in the Los Angeles area then you might want to visit the American Lung Association where you can enter your zip code and see a report on the number of people that will likely have some type of health problem triggered by poor air quality.

AirNow, a consortium of international, federal, state, local and media partners, has a website where you can check out your zip code area and discover hourly air quality -- but be sure to read the Frequently Asked Questions. This air quality map could benefit from more useful consumer friendly features and interactive capabilities such as roads, traffic volumes and use of satellite imagery.

If the research carried out in California is relevant to other states and communities (and it probably is), the discovery that childcare facilities within 600 feet (two football fields in length) of a major highway (defined as having more than 50,000 vehicles per day) have more sick kids should be a wake-up call for every community. The research also suggests that about 7 percent of all the California daycare facilities and 5 percent of the schools that children under 12 attend are "too close" to a busy highway.

While this research certainly informs citizens, I wonder why no one has used geographic information technology to estimate exactly how many children might be "too close" to a busy highway -- not just where they attend childcare or school, but where they actually live. Every time I fly over a large urban area I see many houses and apartments in very close proximity (less than 600 feet) along busy highways! If you have ever had a child with a chronic respiratory illness with symptoms of wheezing and coughing, then you know that having 10 million children across the U.S. with asthma (about 18 percent of all children under 12 years of age) is unacceptable.

Maybe it's time to rethink our approach as to where we build houses, locate childcare facilities, schools, parks, and other places where a large number of children spend a majority of their time -- awake or asleep. From personal experience, taking better care of a child's lungs is a far better investment than spending money on treating the lifelong damage that bad air will contribute. The window of opportunity is very small -- their first 12 years of life!

In translating public health research into information that helps us all make better choices about where (exactly) we raise our future generations -- our children -- we will also come to expect more from those who measure and report on the quality of our air.

As always, I appreciate a second opinion.

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