Traffic Pollution and Asthma: The Experts Weigh In

Traffic and AsthmaIt may not seem like much of a revelation for anyone who has had the misfortune of traveling too close to a truck with an exhaust problem, but the particulates and pollution that come from dense traffic has been linked to increased respiratory issues.  As parents and concerned citizens, how can we protect our homes and bodies from these environmental stresses?

Scientists Connect Traffic to Asthma

Scientists have been studying the connection between pollution and asthma in children for years, generally finding that the more that people already at risk for asthma encounter pollution, the more likely that those same groups will experience asthma symptoms.  A study in the journal Thorax in 2009, however, showed how detrimental those same pollutants could be to adults as well.

This study in Thorax comes on the heels of several other studies linking pollution to the health of children.  In August 1997, Environmental Research published a study that showed a greater likelihood that children who lived within 100 meters of a heavily traveled freeway would experience a cough or wheeze, runny nose, or even be diagnosed with asthma.  A November 2004 study in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology cautioned medical professionals to be aware of the negative health effects of gaseous and particulate pollutants can have on children.

People living within 250 feet of a busy road are more likely to have asthma symptoms.

In the 2009 study, Dr. JR Balmes measured the correlation between a closer proximity to busy roadways (around 250 feet) and the existence of asthma and asthma symptoms in adults.  They found that the dangerous mixture of pollutants in high traffic areas have a larger, more adverse effect on the population’s health than a single pollutant does, perhaps unsurprisingly.  This study also found that the same exposure that negatively affected children also could increase adult-onset asthma as well as exacerbate any underlying allergic or upper respiratory symptoms.  Because the particulates in traffic pollution are so difficult to separate and study, this study could not identify which element of road pollution was most dangerous.

Who’s At Risk for Asthma?

While anyone can be diagnosed with asthma, certain groups may be at more risk to develop upper respiratory symptoms when exposed to pollution, which may later lead to the development of the lung disorder.

The American Lung Association makes clear that this type of pollution is dangerous for a few key populations.

Traffic and Asthma

Obviously, these populations are at risk in any situation involving pollution, but we can also add anyone living within 250 feet of a heavily traveled road to the list (based on the research in Dr. Balmes’s 2009 study).

Many of us will probably find someone we love on this list of endangered groups, so the question then becomes this: how can we prevent the negative impact of traffic pollution on sensitive lungs and systems?

What Can You Do?

Most of us are not in a position to eliminate totally our exposure to traffic pollution—we still have to drive to work, live in our homes, and be out and about in the world. Our kids ride school buses and play outside, our parents travel to doctors’ appointments and out to the grocery store, and unless we live in a rural area, there’s likely more concrete than green space. So natural solutions to cleaning the air are probably not as likely as we might like.

While we could debate the merits of governmental interventions until we are practically blue in the face, most people just want to know how to protect their families now.  No easy answers exist, of course, but experts from the American Lung Association give some suggestions that may help.

Live Outdoors!

Nobody should feel like they are trapped in their house simply because of where they live.  But how can you protect yourself from airborne pollutants and still enjoy yourself?

  • Be vigilant about medications.  If you are taking medication for a pre-existing cardiovascular or chronic lung problem, make sure that you are careful about sticking with your schedule. Missing your prescription medication can make you more vulnerable to the pollutants in the air, even when you are taking other precautions. If you feel great, that means it’s working—not that you should stop using it.
  • Avoid “bad air” days.  Some areas of the country have air alerts to caution residents about overly polluted days—normally in summer heat.  Though it may be frustrating, on days when there is an orange or red alert, it’s best that the most vulnerable populations stay inside.  If you must venture out, try to plan your trips in the morning or in the early evening.  Avoiding the hottest part of the day can help mitigate some of the problem.
  • Be smart about exercise.  Unless your doctor has told you otherwise, keep participating in moderate exercise. It’s good for your cardiovascular health and for your attitude as well.  Avoid exercising outside if you live in a highly polluted area (i.e. don’t run next to a crowded roadway) or find a green area (park, designated running trail) to go to exercise.  If your area frequently falls victim to pollution alerts, you may want to consider joining a gym.  Exercising in a climate-controlled environment may be your best bet.

Protect Your Home!

If you live near a crowded roadway, you obviously can’t just up and move away.  In many cases, urban living makes it nearly impossible to get far enough away from traffic pollution to make a substantial difference. So what can you do in your home to eliminate some of the pollutants you’ll find outside?

  • Traffic and AsthmaBanish dust.  Many people with asthma symptoms are very sensitive to dust.  Take a no-prisoners attitude toward anything in your home that might harbor dust: eliminate excess bedding and stuffed animals, frequently clean fan blades and HVAC air filters, and use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter.  In extreme cases, you may want to consider swapping out your carpet for hardwoods or tile.
  • Eliminate other causes. It’s a really disgusting thing to talk about, but asthma symptoms can be exacerbated by pests that are hiding in your home.  According to the EPA, the protein in the droppings of cockroaches or other pests can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. If you live in community housing, like an apartment or condo building, there’s not much you can do about your neighbors. But you can help keep the risk for your home and family down by sealing cracks in cabinets and between floors and cabinets, along with keeping food securely contained and your living area free of crumbs and spills.
  • Clean the air.  Even when you’re doing the best you can, pollutants and dust may still be present in your home. The best way to combat that is to invest in a quality air purifier with a HEPA filter.  Run it frequently and keep the filter changed and you’ll be surprised at the difference!

Whether you live in an urban center with constant traffic or a rural area with just a few crowded roads, it’s important to know how to keep you and your family safe from the potential hazards of airborne traffic pollution.



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