By Joel Hoffmann, October 10, 2013
Along major roadways that connect the sprawling limits of San Diego County, 39 schools lie within 500 feet of smog-filled traffic corridors, a distance that air-pollution researchers believe significantly increases the risk of pediatric asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Below I-5, where cars, trucks and buses queue on their way north to the Gaslamp District, there’s a Catholic school. Off I-15 in City Heights, a health-sciences charter high. Next to I-8 in Mission Valley, a center for kids with autism and learning disabilities.
But a California law that claims to “protect school children from the health risks posed by pollution from heavy freeway traffic” does not apply to the 39 schools in San Diego County that lie close to major roads, including two private schools located in communities that are among those most burdened by pollution in the state.
The law itself has been limited by weak environmental regulations that put the enforcement burden on the backs of private citizens.
“Being close to traffic pollution is one of the greatest environmental threats experienced by the children of San Diego,” said Dr. Penelope Quintana, an associate professor at San Diego State University who studies the biological impact of air pollution. “They’re a very vulnerable population.”
Air-pollution researchers have established a strong link between children’s proximity to air pollution — in school and at home — and pediatric asthma. Pediatric asthma is “a leading cause of emergency department visits, hospitalizations and missed school days,” according to the Mayo Clinic, and symptoms can follow children into their adult lives.
In 2009, the most recent year for which complete data is available, the state’s Environmental Health Tracking Program found that more than 5,200 San Diego county children under age 18 visited the emergency room for asthma treatment and 850 were hospitalized.
Children are among those most at risk of pollution-related respiratory illnesses because their lungs and immune systems are not fully developed and because they generally spend more time outdoors than adults.
San Diego County is home to the fourth highest number of pediatric asthma cases in the country.