Is active travel a breath of fresh air? Examining children’s exposure to air pollution during the school commute

Walking to school is gaining attention as a source of exercise and a way to get outdoors, but recent concerns regarding air quality may be putting a hamper on active travel. With more and more findings praising the benefits of walking to school, it is important to determine the validity of this reservation.

Currently, public health professionals recommend forms of active travel, such as walking and bicycling. The benefits of active travel include improved respiratory and cardiovascular function, mental fitness and wellbeing, and children’s BMI. Strategies to increase active travel are even being used to combat childhood obesity worldwide. But children breathe and stay outside more, and are more physiologically sensitive to air pollutants. They are therefore more susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution, and research on the relation between school commute and exposure to pollutants is substantially lacking.

Such was the focus of this new study by the HEAL team, which ran as part of the STEAM project (Spatio-Temporal Exposure and Activity Monitoring). The research was conducted by Jason Gilliland, Matthew Maltby, Xiaohong Xu, Isaac Luginaah, Janet Loebach, and Tayyab Shah. Empirical findings were aimed to discern levels of pollutants children are exposed to versus their manner of commute.

Using GPS devices, 101 commutes to and from school were recorded. Areas were mapped based on their concentration of pollutants (PM2.5), and conclusions about rate of exposure were drawn by cross-examining these two fields.

In short, findings found that the act of walking or biking to school significantly decreased the rate of exposure to harmful air. This was in part due to the nature of car and bus commutes, which naturally occur over areas where traffic and other vehicles are a major factor, where the concentration of pollutants is highest. There was also a significant difference in mean PM2.5 concentrations by the built environment, with children who walked to school in suburban neighborhoods experiencing higher personal concentrations than children in urban neighborhoods.

To reduce children’s daily exposure to air pollutants, neighborhoods should be designed to maximize the number of children who are able to walk between home and school.


Keywords: Air pollution, Physical activity, Particulate matter, Wearable device, Active travel

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