Image: Traffic in Austin, Texas
Harry Cabluck  /  AP file
Traffic passes over the Colorado River near downtown Austin, Texas. It is the busiest six-lane section of highway in the state.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/26/2007 9:30:27 PM ET 2007-01-27T02:30:27

Traffic pollution can prevent the lungs of children who live near busy roads from developing properly, making them more likely to suffer respiratory and heart problems later in life, U.S. researchers said on Friday.

They found that children who had lived within 500 yards of a highway from the age of 10, had significantly less lung function by the time they reached 18 than youngsters exposed to less traffic pollution.

“Someone suffering a pollution-related deficit in lung function as a child will probably have less than healthy lungs all of his or her life,” said James Gauderman, of the University of Southern California.

The lead author of the study, published online by The Lancet medical journal, said reduced lung function in later life was known to be a risk factor for respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

The researchers studied the effects of traffic pollution on 3,600 children living in southern California over an eight-year period, through high school graduation.

Each year they carried out tests to measure how much, and how quickly, the children could exhale after taking a deep breath. They also recorded the distance the youngsters lived from freeways and other busy roads.

Children who were otherwise healthy but who lived close to main roads had a significant decrease in lung function.

Lung function is a measure of lung health based on how much air — and how fast — someone can exhale after taking a deep breath. Children's lung function develops rapidly during adolescence until they reach their late teens or early 20s. Problems in children's lung development often means lowered function for the rest of their lives.

"This study shows there are health effects from childhood exposure to traffic exhaust that can last a lifetime," said Dr. David A. Schwartz, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Air pollution can contribute to premature death, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and heart attacks, according to the American Lung Association. It can also lead to asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Those at greatest risk are children, the elderly, those with lung and heart problems and people with diabetes, says the ALA.

Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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