Children in poor families more severely affected by poor air quality

During days of reduced air quality due to so-called inversions, the proportion of children visiting hospitals due to respiratory problems goes up by nearly 5 percent. Children from poor families are particularly affected. This is shown in a new report from SNS, which also shows that the introduction of congestion taxes in Stockholm has resulted in a substantially reduced number of healthcare visits for children suffering from asthma.

Economists Peter Nilsson and Jenny Jans have in a new SNS report examined the impact of short-term and permanent changes in air quality on children’s health. To study the short-term effects, the researchers used data from NASA enabling them to measure inversions – a weather phenomenon temporarily resulting in a reduction in air quality. In order to subsequently measure the effects on health and compare different socio-economic groups, they link this weather data to data on aspects such as healthcare visits, household income and mother’s level of education. The results show that during days of inversion, the proportion of children visiting hospitals due to respiratory problems goes up by 4.9 percent.

The researchers also conclude that air pollution increases the health gap between children growing up in poor and rich families, respectively. A key explanation for this seems to be that children suffering from lower health already from birth are more affected by air pollution and that more children with lower initial health can be found in low-income families. Children with lower initial health in families with higher incomes are also more affected by poor air quality. In other words, children in all income groups have much to gain from reduced air pollution.

“It is crucial that we gain more knowledge on how air pollution affects children from different backgrounds in order to create a society offering equal opportunities for all children,” says Peter Nilsson, professor of economics at Stockholm University.

Road traffic is a major source of air pollution, as it causes emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particles to which children are particularly sensitive. Despite a steady overall improvement in air quality in Sweden, we still face challenges, especially in our cities and urban areas.

By studying the introduction of congestion taxes in Stockholm, the researchers have been able to study the effects of more permanent changes in air quality. The results indicate that the positive effects on children’s health only increase over time, which means that the final health effects are likely to be greater than what may be shown in short-term impact analyses.

“It is important to put figures on this effect. Not only have traffic and commuting times improved as a result of the congestion taxes, we also see clear short- and long-term improvements in children’s respiratory health. Air pollution also affects children’s well-being and cognitive development in a number of additional ways, so the benefits in terms of respiratory health are probably only the tip of the iceberg,” says Peter Nilsson.

This report is published in the framework of the SNS research project Sustainable Urban and Rural Planning. It summarizes two studies, “Economic status, air quality, and child health: Evidence from inversion episodes” by Jenny Jans, Per Johansson and Peter Nilsson and “Congestion Pricing, Air Pollution, and Children’s Health” by Emilia Simeonova, Janet Currie, Peter Nilsson and Reed Walker.

Download a summary of the report SNS Research Brief 70. Air quality and children’s health. English summary.