Study: Kids Who Live Near Freeways Have Trouble Breathing

A new study to be published in the Feb. 17 issue of the Lancet makes a strong case for the link between proximity to vehicular traffic and poor lung function in children. An article on Medical News Today sums up the report, which is currently available online to Lancet subscribers.

[R]esearchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) found that children who lived within 500 meters of a freeway, or approximately a third of a mile, since age 10 had substantial deficits in lung function by the age of 18 years, compared to children living at least 1500 meters, or approximately one mile, away.

"Someone suffering a pollution-related deficit in lung function as a child will probably have less than healthy lungs all of his or her life," says lead author W. James Gauderman, Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. "And poor lung function in later adult life is known to be a major risk factor for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases."

There’s also a story on the report in today’s New York Times.

The study is based on research done in suburban areas of California, where sprawling development means houses and schools close to freeways. But we here in New York have plenty of housing and schools next to highways, and a childhood asthma epidemic.

Thanks to the city’s rampant real estate development, these days it’s not just low-income housing that’s crowded up against major roadways in New York; it’s luxury condos and rental apartments as well. What might happen if the same people who wouldn’t dream of feeding their kids anything but organic applesauce  suddenly woke up to the idea that breathing in the pollution spewed by cars and trucks could well have lifetime negative effects on their children’s health?

Maybe if people with the paychecks to buy million-dollar penthouses or brownstones in swank neighborhoods start agitating, politicians might one day pay at least as much attention to exhaust fumes as they do to second-hand smoke.

10 thoughts on Study: Kids Who Live Near Freeways Have Trouble Breathing

  1. Iris Weinshall told City Council last week that she thinks this is all “manageable.” And that it’s “not a crisis.” And that it’s not her agency’s responsibility. DEP should deal with it. Or the feds or the state. They are responsible for NYC transportation too, you know.

    Who cares if London’s transportation agency has set targets to reduce air pollution and is responsible for monitoring the data and is successfully reducing all kinds of dangerous emissions. Iris is the first to tell you that New York City isn’t London.

  2. There’s a playground on the Upper East Side that is literally surrounded by busy roadways, and across the street from a gas station full of idling cars waiting to gas up. It’s located in a relatively wealthy neighborhood, just steps from Sutton Place. Here’s what it looks like:

    While there was only one family out on the day I filmed this clip, this playground is one of a small handful of open spaces in this part of town and it gets quite a bit of use. I feel sorry for these kids having to play in the exhaust, but I suppose its better than having no playground.

    It’s hard to say whether the residents of this “swank” neighborhood who use this playground recognize the danger posed by the exhaust. Ignorance of the exhaust-pulmonary disease link may well have as much to do tolerance for this kind of set-up as class-based agendas.

    Given Robert Moses’s original decision to put this playground next to the FDR (and atop an old Standard Oil site, brilliant!), the only way to reduce exposure to exhaust in the playground is to reduce traffic. But the city should consider using zoning restrictions to keep gas stations away from playgrounds. Gas stations are not only a major source of exhaust, but also incredibly dangerous for kids, as the drivers treat the adjacent sidewalks as part of the road.

    Here’s the history of the playground, including a story about the visionary and innovative leadership of another great civil servant, Henry Stern:

  3. Steve, I’ve actually brought my kid to that playground to play a couple of times; sometimes we get bored of the same playgrounds in our neighborhood and can use a change of scenery.

    More to the point, my son (now four) has asthma. We do have a family history of atopic breathing ailments – chronic sinusitis, asthma, emphysema – but I don’t think it helped that for the first year of his life we lived just a block from the intersection of the BQE and the LIE in Queens. There were a lot of cemetaries around, but I don’t think they did enough to clear the air.

    We’ve since moved to a different part of the neighborhood, and the BQE is six blocks away at the closest point, but we’ve also got Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard to deal with. His asthma has gotten more manageable, but it’s still there.

  4. Thankfully, I think that’s the only gas station on the East Side between 96th Street and 23rd Street. Not bad for an area that probably has what, 500,000 residents? That said, I look forward to the day when a developer comes along with a higher and better use for that site. Considering Manhattan housing costs, one would think it wouldn’t be too long.

  5. ABG, sorry to hear about your son. You’ve probably heard 100 times from your pediatrician that asthma is a challenge that can be overcome, some olympic atheletes had asthma, blah, blah, blah, but who needs it? And what a feeling to know that all those thoughtless motorists whizzing by probably contributed.

    AD is right on the scarcity of East Side gas stations. Since market forces tell us that there are “higher, better uses” for private land than gas stations, doesn’t that also suggest that there are “higher, better uses” for the ~25-40% of public land devoted to streeets?

  6. I agree that reducing traffic is the best way to respond to these findings. That sounds like “Captain Obvious” talking, but (sincerely, and not rhetorically), what are some alternatives? Only huge, radical things like re-routing highways or rezoning? Aside from the obvious expense and size of such undertakings, I have another problem with those few that I can think of–Sarah imagines society doing something only after the wealthier sectors agitate, and I think much the same way. But if society went that huge-public-works route, rather than the simple “reduce traffic” route, somehow, you can be sure, the changes would end up ONLY serving those areas with those wealthy agitators, and the less affluent areas, full of agitators or not, would end up still living squished by highways.

    Sometimes you just don’t get involved in an issue until it hits closer to home. Well, I live just blocks from the FDR, and have a kid on the way. Unlike seemingly most readers here, I have been on the fence about congestion pricing and tolling the East River Bridges. Well, reading this study has certainly made me start to lean. (Wow, Miss Representation is right, parents are annoying.)

  7. I don’t know if there are higher and better uses than streets, which provide access to all parcels of privately owned land. Without the streets to circulate, the off-street land would not have value.

    However, I think I see where you are going. There are certainly higher and better uses for street space than dedication to free or nearly free automobile movement and storage . Think of Vision42, and how many more thousands of people could be moved via 42nd Street if the traffic was banned and a light-rail system with its own right-of-way was installed.

    There are also better uses for on-street parking than practically free automobile parking. Think of the Williamsburg bike parking which will be of value to many more people than the couple of car spaces removed, or think of all the parking spot squats that have shown how much more life can take place in the amount of public space dedicated to cheap private automobile storage.

    Once we stop viewing “streets” as synonymous with underpriced movement and storage of private automobiles do we find that they retain their value no matter how high the highest-and-best off-street land values climb.

  8. Dartley, congrats on near-parenthood. I suspect Robert Moses stuck many playgrounds next to highways because he didn’t know what to stick there, or maybe he thought parents would drive to playgrounds. Either way, his legacy is a city full of kids at risk and (hopefully) politicized if annoying parents who feel a direct personal stake in fighting against traffic and for separation of cars and parks.

  9. Thanks, Steve!

    Hey, isn’t the darling, beloved Hudson River Greenway kind of near some major car road or other?

    Hm, maybe there ought to be some sort of car-free travel space INSIDE the island, not so close to highways. But of course that’s just a CRAZY idea.

  10. What about Lower Manhattan’s Canal Street? It has the freeway levels of traffic, though without the freeway. Why not instead build a freeway TUNNEL with exhaust gas FILTRATION? Its already a major traffic desire line.

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