Children who live close to traffic-clogged roads are more likely to have asthma than children who live farther from heavily traveled streets, according to a new state report that focuses on six Merrimack Valley communities.
Local officials said the study results could spur the Merrimack Valley communities and the state to do more to curtail asthma - a scourge affecting about 17.3 million Americans, including 5 million children nationwide, the report states. "I'll be more cognizant as we consider new development," Thomas Schiavone, Lawrence's economic development director, said last week. "We really need to do anything we can to alleviate childhood asthma."
The research, conducted from 1998 to 2001, had two parts. One compared the number of asthma cases among 34,000 children ages 5 to 14 against the distance of their homes from a road, at five intervals from 25 meters to 200 meters away, and the road's traffic volume, or average number of automobiles, trucks, and buses traveling on it daily.
At each distance, children with asthma were consistently found to live nearer to a greater volume of traffic than those without the disease. The study also found that the risk for asthma decreased the farther away a child lived from the road. Dracut did not figure in this part of the research.
"This finding stresses the importance of programs to reduce gaseous pollutants and particulates from vehicles," the report by the state Bureau of Environmental Health says.
Final interpretation and release of the findings had to wait until this year because of state budget cuts in 2002, said Suzanne Condon, director of the state bureau and the report's author.
The study did not evaluate how low the traffic volume would have to be, or how far away a child would have to live, to eliminate asthma risk.
The prevalence of childhood asthma ranged from 6.5 to 12.2 percent in the Merrimack Valley communities, with the highest percentage in Lawrence, the report states.
Reacting to the findings, which were released Feb. 19, North Andover Town Manager Mark Rees said only the state can regulate tailpipe emissions and highway construction. He also said the inability to clamp down on traffic at the local level relates to ever-greater strains on municipal budgets that cry out for tax-producing commercial development.
Condon said communities should try to "design development projects in a way that keeps children farthest away from higher-density traffic areas."