Every breath they take by the roadside is a risk. Now scientists can prove it

Children in Nottingham get more wheezy the closer they live to a road, a new study has revealed. Parents in the city say they are not surprised

Andrew Johnson,Cole Moreton
Sunday 24 February 2002 01:00

Chelsea Craig was diagnosed with asthma at birth. Her mother Elise is not the least bit surprised that scientists in her city, Nottingham, have just produced a survey showing that the closer you live to a main road the more likely you are to wheeze.

"It can be very congested where we live," says Elise, whose home is in the suburb of Bulwell. "It's a terraced street near the town centre just off a main road which is always full of cars. I definitely think the traffic is a factor. When Chelsea was born she had to have a mask, although it is settling now she is four."

The 30-year-old was told by doctors last year that she was asthmatic herself and had probably suffered from the condition all her life without knowing it. "I've always had chest pains."

The ground-breaking Nottingham survey found that secondary school pupils whose homes were right next to busy traffic were twice as prone to wheeziness as those who lived 120 metres or more away.

"This gives further proof that traffic pollution does play a role in asthma," said Dr Andrea Venn, who led the survey team at the University of Nottingham's Department of Respiratory Medicine. "In the past, people have shown that it makes the condition worse, but these findings go further in suggesting that pollution may be a cause of asthma."

The report was funded by the National Asthma Campaign and published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. It begins with a reminder that the effect of road vehicle traffic pollution on asthma is still not clearly understood. But it concludes by saying that the new findings "support a causal effect of exposure to road traffic pollution on wheezing illness in children".

For the purpose of the survey a main road was defined as one carrying 10,000-100,000 vehicles a day. The distance to homes was measured using postcodes and the latest satellite mapping systems. About 9,700 children aged between four and 11, living in Nottingham and the surrounding villages to the south, were surveyed.

Scientists already knew that the main vehicle exhaust pollutants – including oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, particulates and hydrocarbons – were more concentrated close to the road. They were not surprised to discover that children who lived within 90 metres of a main road were more likely to become wheezy than those who did not. The risk increased the closer their home was to the traffic. For secondary school pupils it went up by 16 per cent with every 30 metres closer to the road they lived. In primary pupils the increase was eight per cent for every 30 metres.

Primary school girls and secondary pupils of both sexes who lived right on the road were twice as likely to wheeze as those whose homes were 120 metres or more away. This did not apply to primary school boys, for reasons Dr Venn said remain unclear.

There is still more to do, she said. "More research is needed, taking new cases and following them up over time."

Parents shopping in Nottingham city centre yesterday had fewer doubts.

"Pollution is very definitely linked to it," said Howard Peters, father of Emily, 10 and Lewis, 7. He lives in Cardiff but was visiting relatives. "I'm asthmatic and the children were diagnosed very early on. My grandmother died of it, because they did not have the drugs then.

"I've had it all my life and the fumes don't help at all."

The symptoms eased during a holiday in Mallorca. "The weather was lovely and they weren't bad with their asthma at all. It did settle. If either of them get a cold it is a lot worse. You have to keep an eye on them all the time. They have been taken into hospital a couple of times, and I've been into hospital."

Mr Peters was shopping in Market Square at the centre of Nottingham. Most of the streets were closed to traffic and the remaining roads were narrow and empty. Nottingham City Council is in the process of introducing Clear Zones – or traffic free areas – and trams. It is also consulting on a plan to ease traffic on the A453 which cuts through the south of the city.

Away from the pedestrianised areas the traffic is busy and office blocks are stained with pollution. The acrid taste of diesel particles and petrol sticks in the throat.

Theresa Yates, 33, lives in Gamston, Nottingham. Two of the 24 children in the play group she runs have asthma.

"I developed asthma when I was 19, and was 21 when I was diagnosed," she said. "My mother didn't have it and neither did my father. We lived at Highbury Vale [in north Nottingham] for 20 years, between two main roads."

The scientists may require more proof but Theresa's mother, Carol Yates Ede, is sure of what made her daughter sick. "I've always said it was pollution, that it was the traffic. There was always grime and soot on the window sills."

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