If your home is close to the freeway, you could be putting your health in jeopardy.
The Los Angeles freeway system was designed to get you where you need to go fast (well, more likely in tons of traffic). But it also has had unintended consequences for the health of people who live near the busy roads — especially children, who can have lifelong consequences as a result.
The health risks of air pollution
First, some good news: The USC Children’s Health Study, one of the largest research projects into the long-term effects of air pollution on children’s respiratory health, has found that overall, kids’ lungs have improved in the past 20 years in the LA area. Bronchitis symptoms have also declined. This is all due to improvements in air quality, as policies to fight pollution were put in place and emission levels from vehicles declined.
But, it’s still clear based on the study’s findings that children who live in areas with more pollution have poorer lung function, reduced lung growth, more asthma and greater lung damage than kids who live in areas with less pollution. The air quality is definitely the cause, as lung function improves when kids move away from these areas. Plus, days with higher levels of air pollution lead to more respiratory infections that result in more school absences.
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More negative health outcomes discovered
Kids aren’t the only ones at risk. According to the USC Environmental Health Centers, high levels of air pollution near freeways can cause high blood pressure and gestational diabetes in pregnant women. It could also lead to more cognitive problems in their babies. In teens, another USC study showed pollution particles can affect still-developing brains and increase delinquent behavior. In adults, another USC study found that preventable heart disease deaths are a direct result of living near a major road. Living near air pollution can lead to more cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and stroke, and premature death as a result.
Urban living or the suburbs?
So how close is too close? The state Air Resources Board recommends against building homes within 500 feet of freeways, although the LA Times reports that this is happening anyway. The LA City Planning Commission has even warned against building 1000 feet from a freeway and notes negative health consequences as far as a mile away. (Check out how your home fares with the LA Times’ interactive map.)
In some ways, urban density can have environmental benefits — living close to public transportation hubs reduces the number of cars on the road. Better air filtration systems, vegetation barriers and other anti-pollution measures may help new buildings that are close to busy freeways. But experts still agree that living farther out has current benefits for your health, even though you have to drive a greater distance to get to where you want to go. In general, the farther you are from the freeway, the less pollution poses a risk to your health.
But besides moving, what else can you do to protect your respiratory health if you live in an urban environment with pollution? Monitor the air quality by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency website airnow.gov. You can also sign up for email alerts or download their app. Or, check out the World Health Organization’s air quality website, breathelife2030.org.
Follow these tips to keep safe when air quality is low:
- Stay indoors as much as possible in a building with air filtration. At home, close the windows and use an air conditioner with a HEPA filter, or use an air cleaner/purifier, especially in your sleeping space.
- Keep your home clean of particles by using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and a wet mop on floors. In general, carpet is going to hold onto more dirt and dust, so bare floors are better.
- Don’t use a fireplace, smoke or light candles.
- On your commute, see if you can go in off-rush hour. Try taking back roads or, if you walk, go through a park.
- Take off your shoes as soon as you get inside, and change your clothes.
- If you exercise outdoors, skip mid-afternoon on warm days.
by Tina Donvito
If you’re concerned about the effects of pollution on your health, make an appointment with one of our respiratory specialists at Keck Medicine of USC. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.