Children in huge number i.e. about four million every year are developing asthma from air pollution caused by vehicles like cars and trucks. A landmark study also disclosed that it is equivalent to 11,000 new asthma cases every day occurring worldwide because of toxic air from traffic.
The places with pollution levels below the limit set by the World Health Organization are witnessing most of the new cases which mean toxic air is even more harmful than we thought.
Children health is deteriorating not only in countries with high pollution levels like China and India but the traffic pollution is also the reason of one-quarter of all new childhood asthma cases in UK and US cities as per the researchers.
Out of the 194 nations analyzed to examine the rate of new traffic-related asthma cases, Canada ranked third highest. The Los Angeles and New York City are in the list of top 10 worst cities out of the assessment of 125 cities. The exposure to toxic air causes stunted lungs in the children as they are specifically vulnerable to the toxic air.
The research which conducted the first global assessment of the traffic fume’s impact on child health causing asthma was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health. It is based on high-resolution pollution data.
“Our findings suggest that millions of new cases of paediatric asthma could be prevented by reducing air pollution,” said Prof Susan Anenberg, at George Washington University in the US.
Nitrogen dioxide is the crucial pollutant produced by diesel vehicles, and even after the Dieselgate scandal, the emissions from vehicles is much higher than the allowable limit on the road. “Improving access to cleaner forms of transport, like electrified public transport, cycling and walking, would reduce asthma, enhance physical fitness, and cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said Anenberg.
“This landmark study shows the massive global burden of asthma in children caused by traffic pollution,” said Prof Chris Griffiths, at the Queen Mary University of London and the co-director of the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, who was not part of the research team. “Asthma is only one of the multiple adverse effects of pollution on children’s health. Governments must act now to protect children.”
The new study combined population numbers and asthma incidence rates with detailed data of NO2 pollution. Many extensive studies have established that the link is strong between traffic pollution and childhood asthma, and also disclosed that pollution is the reason behind the damaging inflammation. This data on risks determines the number of new cases in the whole world.
“From the weight of evidence, there is likely a strong causal relationship between traffic pollution and childhood asthma incidence,” said Ploy Achakulwisut, also at George Washington University and the lead author of the new study. “So we can be confident that traffic pollution has a significant effect on childhood asthma incidence.”
There is clear epidemiological evidence that NO2 is the key pollutant. However, other pollutants such as tiny particles that are pumped out by vehicles are also a factor which the researchers cannot deny although experimenting directly on people is not possible.
“Childhood asthma has reached global epidemic proportions,” said Prof Rajen Naidoo, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and not involved in the study. The one in eight of all new cases is the result of traffic pollution. “An important outcome from this study is the evidence that the existing WHO standards are not protective against childhood asthma.”
South Korea holds the highest national rate of childhood asthma because of traffic pollution including one-third of total new cases. The blame goes to vehicles. Japan, Belgium, six Middle Eastern nations, and Saudi Arabia, all are in the top 10 list.
China (760,000), India (350,000) and the US (240,000) remain the top three countries every year for the total number of new children getting asthma, and that is mainly because of the high population and pollution levels of these countries. According to scientists, in many underdeveloped nations, the right levels of pollution may be underestimated by the research as asthma is often not diagnosed in these countries.
“While it is important for parents to try to reduce individual exposure, maybe by avoiding highly congested roads as much as possible, not everyone can do this,” said Achakulwisut. “So it is important to call for policy initiatives to tackle pollution at city, state and national levels.”
“The good news is that a transition to zero-emission vehicles is already underway,” she said. There are countries and cities that are pledging to phase out internal combustion engines and policies such as London’s new ultra-low emission zone are being rolled out. “But this transition needs to become global, and it needs to happen faster. Each year of delay jeopardises the health of millions of children worldwide.”
Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “We used to think the only real danger roads posed to children was the threat of a car accident. However, now we can see there’s an equally deadly risk: breathing in air pollution. Rightly, there’s been a huge effort to reduce road accidents and we need to see an equal commitment to reducing toxic air.”