When I got in to work this morning, I was surprised to see this article across the front page of the local rag, The West Australian. In a one-paper-town (well two if you count the Sunday Times), the West usually comes from a pro-car position. It’s a shock that an article like this can make the front page, particularly because the last paragraph suggests that we should drive less.
It also makes the commonly accepted belief that Perth is a relatively clean city seem doubtful. Sure the air here is cleaner than the big industrial cities of China, but is probably isn’t any better than a lot of European cities who have curbed car usage. Any time we get an atmospheric inversion you can see the smog around the CBD – and the problem pollutant is not something that you can see, it’s Carbon Monoxide.
Car fumes in Perth suburbs are affecting the growth of unborn babies and making them smaller at birth than expected, a new study reveals.
Researchers from the University of WA and Telethon Institute of Child Health Research found that even mothers living in suburbs with low industrial activity and average traffic emissions were giving birth to babies weighing 58g less than the average expected birth weight of 3.5kg.
The decrease in birth weight was half that of babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy – a well-known cause of low birth weight.
The findings, based on the records of 1800 pregnant women and their babies, are published in today’s Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
It is the first study to look at the effect of local vehicle emissions on the growth of unborn babies.
The researchers were able to track carbon monoxide levels around the homes of the women up to the time they gave birth.
While the researchers did not name suburbs, they were reportedly in the south metropolitan area.
The suburbs had minimal exposure to industrial fumes but a mix of busy and quiet roads.
UWA epidemiologist and assistant professor Gavin Pereira, whose specialises in the effects of air pollution on child health, found in a study released last year that Perth’s traffic pollution was increasingly the risk by up to 70 per cent of young children having serious asthma attacks.
He said the results from the latest study were surprising because the pregnant women studied did not live in heavily polluted areas. “I didn’t really expect to see any effect, so it was pretty surprising, although some international studies have found some associations,” he said.
“It was more the extent of the effect, because we would have expected it to be almost negligible because Perth is not really a polluted city.”
Mr Pereira said the growth of some babies in the study exposed to vehicle emissions was even more impaired than the 58g average.
He said while it was not a reason for pregnant women to panic, there was a message to planners not to build houses close to major roads.
“We need to do a lot more work on this because as researchers we can’t say the exact distance we should be building away from these roads,” he said.
“But it tells us we need to be looking a lot closer at this issue, particularly when we saw a not insignificant effect on birth weight in the relatively low polluted areas that we studied.
“Air pollution is ubiquitous but I guess everyone is contributing to it so the general message might be to drive less.”
It makes me wonder, if we acknowledge that cars are a source of health problems for our children, causing asthma attacks and lower birth weights, as well as endangering them so that they are not allowed out onto the street on their bicycles any more, will politicians really start to do something about the problem? Do we care about our children more than we love our cars? Has it become clear yet that all of the new technologies, like low emission engines and hybrid cars aren’t going to make this problem go away in a hurry?
I fully support spending WA’s mainly mining related budget surplus on rail infrastructure, and accompanying off road bicycle infrastructure. As well as the new infrastructure we need to continually expand the capacity of the current infrastructure, because the old addage of ‘if you build it, they will come’ has certainly been demonstrated with train services. Overcrowding has become a disincentive to use the trains. In a city where people are used to their wide open spaces, people who live at stations close to the city (e.g. Stirling and Maylands), sometimes have to miss trains because they cannot physically fit into the space left when the trains stop at their platforms.
There is a lot of room for improvement, and a lot that can be done to get the people of Perth out of their cars. All that is needed is the political will to do that. I have a question for Colin Barnett – is the health of the next generation enough motivation for you?
As for me, next time a motorist close shaves me, abuses me, throws stuff out of the window at me, or pulls out in front of me – I might just yell back “I’m riding because I care about your kids!”