Equivalent of 11,000 new cases a day occur worldwide due to toxic air from traffic, researchers say.
Reported in the Guardian newspaper, four million children develop asthma every year as a result of air pollution from cars and trucks, equivalent to 11,000 new cases a day, a landmark study has found.
Most of the new cases occur in places where pollution levels are already below the World Health Organization limit, suggesting toxic air is even more harmful than thought.
The damage to children’s health is not limited to China and India, where pollution levels are particularly high. In UK and US cities, the researchers blame traffic pollution for a quarter of all new childhood asthma cases.
Canada has the third highest rate of new traffic-related asthma cases among the 194 nations analysed, while Los Angeles and New York City are in the top 10 worst cities out of the 125 assessed. Children are especially vulnerable to toxic air and exposure is also known to leave them with stunted lungs.
The research, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, is the first global assessment of the impact of traffic fumes on childhood asthma 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. Asthma can cause deadly seizures.
The key pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, is produced largely by diesel vehicles, many of which emit far more than allowed on the road even after the Dieselgate scandal. “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.
Due to their high populations and pollution levels, the top three countries for the total number of new children getting asthma each year are China (760,000), India (350,000) and the US (240,000). The scientists said their research may underestimate the true levels in many poorer nations where asthma often goes undiagnosed.
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.”