Even when I was a baby, I had trouble breathing. My mom often reminds me of the long days she spent soothing my coughing fits, and I can remember numerous recesses spent painfully breathless on the elementary school playground. It wasn't until I grew older and joined competitive sports that I finally figured out why my lungs clamped shut every time I was active—exercise-induced asthma. After that, I was sidelined from far too many important cross-country practices, especially when the air pollution level was considered abnormally high. And because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is ranked in the top 10 U.S. cities with the most year-round particle pollution (unsurprisingly, it's also surrounded by multiple high-traffic five-lane highways), high levels happened more often than was ideal.
Considering I have a particular disdain for polluted air, I was interested to read that the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care was publishing a study that found children who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution had worse lung function than those living in less polluted areas. Their conclusion was that by age 8, children who lived within 100 meters of a major roadway had lung function six percent lower than that of children living 400 or more meters from a major roadway.
According to the lead author, this study is one of few to examine the effects of the improved air quality measures in the 1990s on children's lung function. The researchers examined 614 children whose mothers had enrolled in Project Viva, a long-term health and wellness study in eastern Massachusetts, between 1999 and 2002. After calculating the distance from each child's home to the nearest major highway and using satellite measurements to estimate the children's exposure air pollution, they gave the children lung function tests at age 8.
The study highlights three main findings. First, children who lived closest to major highways had the largest reductions in lung function. Second, recent air pollution exposure had the greatest negative impact on lung function. And third, children who experienced an improvement of air quality after their first year of life (whether due to moving homes or changes in local pollution levels) had better lung function as compared to those who did not experience an improvement.
While the study is limited because of its small sample size, it still illustrates the alarming effects of our already lowered air pollution—and gives me a better idea as to why my lungs have been punishing me since I was young.
Riyana Straetker is an Editorial Assistant at Parents who spends far too many gym sessions sucking on her inhaler. Follow her on Twitter.