Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

The lung function of Southern California children and young teens is significantly stronger than children who grew up in the area in the mid- and late-1990s as a result of improving air quality in the Los Angeles basin, according to a 20-year USC study released Wednesday.

The study traced the health of more than 2,000 children in selected locations — Long Beach, San Dimas, Riverside, Mira Loma and Upland — over two decades, and its authors said it provides strong evidence of the health benefits of better air.

“We saw pretty substantial improvements in lung function development in our most recent cohort of children,” according to W. James Gauderman, professor of preventative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It’s strange to be reporting positive numbers instead of negative numbers after 20 years.”

The study previously found an increase in stunted lung development in children living in areas with heavy air pollution, and an increased asthma risk for children living near busy roadways.

The latest study results, published in tomorrow’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found gains in lung function that “paralleled improving air quality in the communities studied,” according to USC. According to the study, exposure to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter fell about 40 percent for children studied from 2007-2011 as compared to those studied in 1994-98.

Lung growth over the same period for children aged 11 to 15 was 10 percent greater over the same time frame, and the percentage of children with abnormally low lung function at age 15 dropped from nearly 8 percent in the 1994-98 group to 3.6 percent for children tracked from 2007-11.

“Reduced lung function in adulthood has been strongly associated with increased risks of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and premature death,” Gauderman said. “Improved air quality over the past 20 years has helped reduce the gap in lunch health for kids inside, versus outside, the L.A. basin.”

Gauderman cautioned, however, that while the study points to an “environmental success story,” more work needs to be done to clean the air.

“We can’t get complacent, because not surprisingly the number of vehicles on our roads is continually increasing,” he said. “Also, the activities at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, which are our biggest polluting sources, are projected to increase. That means more trucks on the road, more trains carrying cargo.”

Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, welcomed the study’s findings, saying improving the health of children is the focus of the area’s clean-air efforts.

“This study shows that our efforts to clean the air are paying dividends for children’s health today as well as throughout their lifetimes,” he said.

City News Service

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