Thorax 69:503-504 doi:10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013-204991
  • Editorial

Effects of near-road and regional air pollution: the challenge of separation

  1. Nino Künzli1,2
  1. 1Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Basel, Switzerland
  2. 2University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  1. Correspondence to Professor Nino Künzli, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Socinstrasse 57, PO Box, Basel 4002, Switzerland; Nino.Kuenzli{at}

As people spend most of their lifetime at home, outdoor air pollution levels near the home remain an important determinant of personal exposure to pollution from outdoor sources. With every breath, we inhale a complex mixture of hundreds of such pollutants. A simplified categorisation of these pollutants distinguishes local, freshly emitted (primary) pollutants from regional, aged (secondary) pollutants. To understand people's exposure to the latter—more homogeneously distributed pollutants (eg, fine particles, PM2.5 or ozone)—many studies use data from fixed-site monitoring stations, considered to be representative of exposure in the entire community. For near-road local types—such as diesel soot, ultrafine nanoparticles, NO or CO—this approach is insufficient.1 Freshly emitted pollutants from vehicle exhaust and resuspended particles show strong spatial gradients, with concentrations exponentially decreasing, reaching within 50–500 m of busy roads 10–30% of the levels observed on the street.2 Thus, to understand exposure to these locally emitted pollutants, we need to use small-scale local measurements and models.

The main argument for making this distinction is that regional and near-road traffic-related pollutants may have different health effects. The literature on childhood asthma and air pollution supports this notion and reveals two consistent patterns: (1) comparison of the (multivariate-adjusted) asthma prevalence or incidence across communities with different air quality does not support the hypothesis that regional air pollutants play a relevant aetiological role3; (2) studies estimating exposure to near-road traffic-related pollutants indicate that children growing up close to busy roads have a higher risk of developing asthma than those living a few hundred metres away.4 ,5 The Southern Californian Children's Health Study (CHS) is one of several epidemiological studies that recognises the asthmogenic role of near-road pollutants,6 ,7 confirming biologically plausible models.8

Landmark cohort studies initiated by the CHS team provide both cross-sectional and longitudinal …

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