We have the traffic even in the border of the street and the levels of air pollution coming from cars and trucks in urban areas become very high. This can have serious consequences on children’s health, but we can take some measures in order to protect them. Through this article, we are going to make a thorough review of these aspects and we are going to offer several criterions to take into account when choosing the places where children will play or practice sport, avoiding the risks that can be found in the air they are breathing.
Atmospheric pollution: at our door
The harmful effects of atmospheric pollution on human health are unquestionable: scientific studies all over the world have proved over and over again that they have a relationship with asthma and other respiratory disorders, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer, among others, on adults, children and also as a consequence of the fetus’ exposure inside the uterus. Pollution in the air comes in great deal from fuels belonging to cars and trucks: traffic is responsible for until 80% of fine particles, and diesel engines expel more harmful pollution for health than the ones provoked by petrol, according to Xavier Basagaña, researcher in Centro de Investigación en Epidemiología Ambiental (CREAL). This is why the quality of air is not the same in the urban areas and the rural ones, and even inside the cities there are important differences among different areas. As a matter of fact, the risk of suffering from respiratory problems due to air pollution can be increased until 4 times, depending on the different areas on one specific city.
This is like that, and the most recent researches together with the ones that are being carried out at the moment, are taking into account the levels of pollution virtually in each street, considering the distance among the people’s houses and large traffic roads. This means, as per the United States where most of the studies have been undertaken so far, dual carriageways and highways, where the most important volume of big vehicles and diesel engines lorries is focused. Regarding Europe, and Spain specifically, these concepts must be translated in a different way. On one hand, due to the fact that 60% of cars use a diesel engine here and, on the other, because urbanism in the cities makes us have routes with a high level of traffic in the most centric urban areas (this is the case of Diagonal or Avenida Meridiana in Barcelona or the case of Recoletos or Plaza Castillain Madrid to give a couple of examples).
This means having more vehicles and more pollutants inside the city. Using Mr Basagaña’s words “we are living very close to traffic; we have it in the borders of our streets”. Not only that: the presence of high buildings at both sides of such busy streets creates some kind of “canons” that make pollution to be trapped and thus, the level of pollution registered become even higher.
And which are the consequences of living so close to the place where pollution is created? Many.
Consequences of living close to routes with heavy traffic
One study carried out in Southern California University, for example, observed the growth on the lung function on children and teenagers aged between 10 and 18. Using spirometries and other tests that were repeated annually, this research detected that, at 10 years old, those children living less than 500 meters away from heavy traffic streets, have a lesser lung function. When they are 18 years old, the differences between the ones living more than 1,500 meters away from one dual carriageways are far more significant. This is a very important piece of information because when we reach the age of 18, our development is virtually completed, and this lesser lung function will stay like that forever, with consequences on our health that will stay the whole of our lives.
Another study undertaken by the same university and focused on children aged between 5 and 7 shows that living less than 75 meters away from one big road with heavy traffic is linked with a higher risk to suffer from asthma and wheezings in their breathing. The risk decreases when the distance is larger than 300 meters and the effects become more evident among those ones who have been exposed to this pollution during their gestation and their two first years of life. If large concentrations of ozone are registered, practicing physical sport or effort also increases the risk of asthma. This, obviously, is not the only factor: the family history, the diet or the exposition to tobacco smoke are other determinants aspects. But the quality of air is one of the most important.
The pollution effects not only affect respiratory tracks. Xavier Basagaña has taken part on one study, carried out on adults this time, which shows that living less than 100 meters away from a road with heavy traffic, accelerates the process of arteriosesclerosis twice as much the average per year. The study was done using data belonging to the United States, and now is being enlarged with data belonging to Gerona. Another research based on London and Wales, associates the moment with larger concentration of pollution with a bigger index of myocardial infarction in the following hours. And even the traffic noise has effects on our health and it is linked with problems of children’s learning and with stress.
Town planning, a key factor
The constant growth of population in urban areas has leaded to urbanizing even the vicinity of big roads, ring roads and highways. Residential areas have been built, as well as hospitals, residences for old people, schools and sports centers. “The most important thing is, mainly, to work to decrease the levels of pollution in general”, says researcher Basagaña, “but the distance to the roads with most heavy traffic should also be a factor to take into account when planning new constructions”.
This is also the opinion stated by Bert Brunekeed, director in the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences, in the University of Utrech (The Netherlands); he visited Barcelona recently. According to his explanations, despite the fact that several countries in Northern Europe are already working in order to avoid the construction of new schools beside areas with a lot of traffic, governments cannot argue with the new European rules so far, and these rules fix limits of pollution much higher than the ones advised by experts on health (WHO included).
This means that, at the moment, nothing stops keeping on building houses and equipments, including schools, in areas whose index of air pollution is high, so children grow, study or practice sport very close to focus of polluted air, with the effects that this fact entails for health.
On the other hand, some town-planning factors can have a positive influence on the quality of air. This is the case of having trees in the streets: one study carried out in new York and other undertaken in London show that urban trees can play a key role in the prevention of asthma during the first years of childhood, and that, when filtering the pollutant particles, they can contribute to reduce the presence of harmful agents in the atmosphere.
What can we do?
All this information, obviously, leads us to ask ourselves what we can do in order to minimize the effects that air pollution can have on our health, especially on children’s health. Researchers are very assertive on it and they all agree: The levels of general pollution must be decreased and undertaking more research is also necessary to know more about the subject.
In the meanwhile, we can also take some specific measures during our every day life, both to contribute to decrease pollution and to protect ourselves from its effects:
- Try to live in an area with a low index of atmospheric pollution, 200 meters away from roads with high density of traffic, if possible. Obviously, moving into another home because of this reason is complicated, but it can be an important judgement to take into account on future decisions if we plan to move into another home.
- Moving from one place to another on foot or by bicycle whenever it is possible. Should it be impossible, chose public transport instead of private car. When buying a new car, choose the ones that expel less pollution (very important: avoid diesel engines).
- Chose restricted areas for pedestrians or areas with little traffic when going for a walk with the children. It is much better if the streets have trees.
- Consider the distance to roads with heavy traffic when choosing the school (from kindergarten days to high school). Children spend a good deal of their time at school and the quality of air they are breathing during all these hours is as important as the quality of air breathed at home.
- Practice physical sport for one hour a day in a park or in a sport area in the open air. When choosing the area, it is advisable avoiding those ones located beside an avenue with heavy traffic; we must search those ones located in quiet places. Likewise, choosing a playing area with trees and plants is more advisable than choosing one where the cement paving predominates.
- Give support to those initiatives that request a better quality of air.
Throughout ‘Salud infantil y medio ambiente. Una relación de por vida‘ guide, issued by Fundació Roger Torné, you will find additional information on healthy habits to prevent respiratory diseases.