An alarming kids’ health report shows cities must act now on traffic pollution

Toxic air makes playing outside dangerous for children.
Toxic air makes playing outside dangerous for children.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A landmark new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health this week adds to growing evidence of the terrible impact traffic air pollution has on young kids.

The research found that has many as 4 million new cases of pediatric asthma occur every year because of exposure to fine particles and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from traffic fumes, which can travel inside their respiratory tract and cause serious health issues.

While they grow, children are especially vulnerable to external toxins contained in air pollution. Several studies have shown that there is a particularly strong link between exposure to NO2 and increased incidence of asthma. The threat is global: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90% of the world’s 1.8 billion children are exposed to toxic air pollutants on a daily basis.

Experts are hoping the study will encourage cities to undertake more efforts to reduce traffic pollution.  “Replacing bus fleets, providing better public transport, accelerating the provision of facilities for electric vehicles, incentivizing electric vehicles—there’s a whole range of things that you can do,” says Chris Griffiths, co-director of the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research.

“A lot of those are within the gift of government, they simply require money and the political will to do them,” Griffiths says.

The study authors agree: “Traffic emissions should be a target for exposure-mitigation strategies,” they write.

Nitrogen dioxide is mostly produced by diesel vehicles, which are already subject to bans or restrictions in many cities. London mayor Sadiq Khan recently implemented an ultra-low emission zone which charges drivers of diesel vehicles whose engines are not certified to the latest standards an additional £12.50 ($16) a day to drive in the city center. According to the Lancet study (pdf), 440 cases of pediatric asthma are diagnosed per 100,000 kids every year in London because of NO2 exposure.

London is not the only city looking to get particularly polluting vehicles off its roads. Paris city mayor Anne Hidalgo has made tackling traffic pollution a centerpiece of her tenure. She banned all diesel vehicles registered before 2001 from entering the city, and plans to outlaw them altogether in 2024. This summer, the entire Greater Paris region will become a low-emission zone. And last October, diesel cars manufactured before mid-2015 were banned from key thoroughfares of Berlin.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has made tackling ambient air pollution a priority as part of its sustainable development goal of making cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” “Air pollution does not recognize borders,” it said, “and improving air quality demands sustained and coordinated government action at all levels.”

Asthma affects as many as 339 million people (pdf) worldwide. It is a serious, chronic condition that reduces children’s quality of life, forcing many into regular emergency room visits, and preventing them from doing the things that any child should be able to do, including play, run, or go outside. As Rajen Naidoo, an occupational health physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, writes, “childhood asthma has reached global epidemic proportions.” Any solution that can reduce the global burden of this disease, even a little, should be taken seriously for the sake of those who suffer from it.

Griffiths says what sticks in his mind, “aside from asthma that kills, and the disruption of having to attend hospital with asthma attacks, and the social stigma of asthma,” is how the disease limits children’s “ability to achieve their goals and dreams in life.”