Traffic Pollution Causes Millions of Asthma Cases in Kids

Add this to the huge list of reasons to bike or carpool to work.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Pollution is bad for the planet, and we all should know that by now (have you seen Los Angeles?) — but it’s harming us in more ways than you think. In fact, a new study shows that air pollution is a huge cause of childhood asthma, a life-threatening disease.

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory condition of the lungs and airways — basically, when asthma is triggered, the symptoms make it difficult to breathe, which can be extremely dangerous and even lead to death if attacks are severe enough and go untreated.

Four million kids worldwide get asthma every year as a result of inhaling air pollution, according to a study from researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health. And an estimated 64% of these new asthma cases occur in urban areas.

The specific type of pollution at fault is traffic-related nitrogen dioxide — which mainly comes from motor vehicle exhaust.

The study, published April 10 in The Lancet Planetary Health, used data from 2010 to 2015 and is the first to provide clear stats on how many childhood asthma cases around the globe are linked to this traffic-related pollution. To gather data, researchers used a method that accounted for the high amounts of this pollutant near busy roads. While we’ve known that pollution was an asthma trigger, along with things like allergies and secondhand smoke, this study provides clear-cut data to underscore just how big a problem it really is.

And it’s a big one.

Yep, This Is Related to Climate Change

Like so many issues in our world today, this one’s related to global warming.

"Our findings suggest that millions of new cases of pediatric asthma could be prevented in cities around the world by reducing air pollution," said senior study author Susan C. Anenberg, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute, in a press release. "Improving access to cleaner forms of transportation, like electrified public transport and active commuting by cycling and walking, would not only bring down NO2 levels, but would also reduce asthma, enhance physical fitness, and cut greenhouse gas emissions."

In fact, the study found that cities with high levels of NO2 also had high levels of greenhouse gas emissions — so working to clean up our air would prevent health problems like asthma and battle climate change at the same time, says Anenberg.

Want to do your part to help reduce traffic-related pollution? Here are some simple transportation and commute changes to consider:

  • Go public: Instead of driving to work, think about public transit options like the bus or subway.

  • Rideshare your way: Tap open your Lyft or Uber and catch a group ride instead of taking your own car or own taxi — leave extra time for this “pool” option.

  • It’s electric! Can’t part with your car completely? Consider investing in an electric vehicle, or a hybrid, to cut down on the pollution you’re contributing.

  • Ditch the car completely: Even better — reduce your impact further and get some exercise by biking or walking to work occasionally, if you’re close enough. Many cities now have bikeshare systems and electric scooters like Bird available, too!

  • Boss, can I work from home today? Another option — try to negotiate some regular telework days into your schedule to avoid having to drive to work and contribute to traffic pollution daily.

And if you are driving, do everyone a favor and try your best to combine your errands into fewer trips, and avoid idling too long (consider turning your car off while you’re stuck in the Starbucks drive-through, for example) — that way, motor exhaust isn’t entering the air for longer than it has to. We’ve got this, people.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at