Autistic Freeways

A recent study completed by researchers from the University of Southern California shows that a pregnant mother living within a 1,000 feet of a freeway has twice the chance of having an autistic child.  Given that 11% of our population lives withing 100 meters (328 feet) of a four-lane highway, this finding has significant societal implications.

While the causality still needs to be worked out to definitively link autism to freeway air or noise pollution, living next to a freeway carries indisputable negative health impacts.  For example, children living within 100 meters of a freeway have been found to develop significantly more coughing, wheezing, runny noses, and doctor-diagnosed asthma than those living farther away. (1)

To solve the problem, we can take at least two approaches.  We can move our populations away from freeways and the air pollution that spills from them, or we can clean our transportation by moving away from fossil fuels so that our freeways create less pollution.  Both offer significant challenges and tremendous payoffs, namely healthier people.

Smart growth policies, such as those driven by California’s SB 375, can increase the number of people living away from freeways by aggregating populations around public transit, biking and walking options.   In reality however, as long as our transportation system focuses on the personal automobile, we will have high numbers of people living next to the freeway.

Given this reality, the need to transition away from petroleum, internal combustion engines, and the pollution associated with both is increasingly critical.  We have the technology to make the transition happen (i.e., battery-electric and hydrogen-fuel-cell-electric vehicles), we just need the political and economic will to make the transition happen.

Take your pick of reasons to push for the transition:  national security, global warming, air quality, water quality, health, economics, peak oil, oil spills, terrorism….and add the autistic freeway to the quiver.

-Tyson Eckerle

(1) Motor Vehicle Exhaust and Chronic Respiratory Symptoms in Children Living near Freeways. Environmental Research, Volume 74, Issue 2, August 1997, Pages 122-132. Patricia van Vliet, Mirjam Knape, Jeroen de Hartog, Nicole Janssen, Hendrik Harssema, Bert Brunekreef

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