Traffic pollution imposes high asthma costs on families and society

Published Online: November 2014

Emerging evidence indicates that air pollution causes asthma. However, there has been little study of the burden of disease or associated cost. As asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations for children, pollution-related asthma costs are potentially large. In research published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Brandt and colleagues quantified the costs of asthma and measured how these costs could be apportioned to exposure to air and regional nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3). Their study was unique in valuing the quality-of-life impacts of asthma and its associated day-to-day costs.

Brandt et al. examined the costs of exposure to regional air pollution that exacerbates existing asthma and the costs of near-roadway pollution that causes children to develop asthma. They estimated these costs for Los Angeles County in 2007 and illustrated how costs would vary under different hypothetical scenarios: a 20 percent reduction in levels of NO2 and O3 combined with a 20 percent reduction or increase in the proportion of the total population exposed to near-roadway pollution.

The burden of childhood asthma is approximately $3,000 a year per affected family in Los Angeles. In 2007, the combined yearly cost of pollution-related asthma was $202 million for the combined effects of NO2 and near-roadway pollution and $441 for million for the effects of O3 and near-roadway pollution. The cost of asthma caused by exposure to near-roadway pollution accounted for 43% (O3) to 51% (NO2) of the total annual cost of pollution-related asthma. Brandt et al. found that savings from lowering the levels of NO2 and O3 could be markedly diminished if accompanied by increased near-roadway pollution exposure. Alternatively, reducing both levels of regional pollution and exposure to near-roadway pollution would result in large savings.

Because public expenditures to treat asthma exacerbations could have been invested elsewhere, the costs of exposure to air pollution are a toll on society as a whole. The amount spent in 2007 to treat pollution-caused asthma exacerbations in Los Angeles could have paid for 135,000 chicken pox vaccinations, public insurance for 33,000 children, or full-time preschool for 2,000 children.

These savings can be realized through appropriate public policies. One example is an initiative in Springfield, Massachusetts to create a buffer between major roadways and new facilities for children and the elderly.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI) is an official scientific journal of the AAAAI, and is the most-cited journal in the field of allergy and clinical immunology.

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