AMHERST, Mass. – Asthma caused or worsened by living near major roadways cost Los Angeles County more than $441 million in 2007 alone, according to a new peer-reviewed article by researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Southern California and the University of Basel, Switzerland.
In the report published in the November issue of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, a team of researchers led by Sylvia Brandt, associate professor of public policy and resource economics at UMass Amherst, calculated the total costs that asthma imposes on children and families living within 75 meters of freeways, highways and major arterial roads, including the direct costs of medical care and the problem of having to manage and live with the disease. They also measured the specific impact of two forms of air pollution on those costs: the pollution that comes from living near a major roadway and higher levels of ground-level ozone (O3) or nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
In a previous study published in 2012, Brandt and her team had found that living near a major roadway causes new cases of childhood asthma, while regional air pollutants such as NO2 and O3 trigger breathing problems in children who suffer from asthma. In the latest study, they found that these factors together impose tremendous economic costs on asthma sufferers, their families and their communities. In Los Angeles County in 2007 alone, the burden of childhood asthma was approximately $3,000 per affected child, and all cases of asthma created a total cost of $441 million to the county. Because 32 percent of children in L.A. County are covered by public health insurance, an equivalent proportion of those direct costs are borne by taxpayers. Since many children live near major roadways throughout the United States, and the study’s results are relevant to other large urban areas, the authors estimate that their findings about local spending imply billions of dollars are spent annually on a national scale.
The researchers also illustrated in their new study how these costs could vary under alternative scenarios for future urban redevelopment. For example, they found that an increase in the percentage of the population exposed to near-roadway pollution might significantly undermine any benefits created by reducing regional air pollution alone. In order to maximally reduce the costs of childhood asthma, they believe that it will be important not only to reduce vehicular pollution, but also to take steps such as reducing the number of schools situated close to major roads or installing barriers between housing and roads. They found that if near-roadway pollution exposure was eliminated, 51 percent and 43 percent of asthma-related costs could be reduced, respectively, by reducing NO2 and O3 to the levels found in “clean” communities.
“Family and government spending to cover the direct costs of pollution-related asthma is a tragic and entirely avoidable loss to society,” said Brandt of her team’s findings. “In 2007, the public money spent to treat pollution-caused asthma attacks in Los Angeles could have paid for 135,000 chicken pox vaccinations, public insurance for 33,000 children, or full-time pre-school for 2,000. We could achieve these savings through good public policies, such as laws to prevent schools from being built near major roads.”
Brandt’s team of researchers included Laura Perez and Nino Künzli of the University of Basel, John Wilson, Manuel Pastor and co-principal investigator Rob McConnell of the University of Southern California, and Fred Lurmann of Sonoma Technology, Inc., located in Petaluma, Calif.