Why walking to school is good for your lungs — in more ways than one

TVO.org speaks with Jason Gilliland, lead author of a recent study on children and the environment, about how to create healthier school commutes
By Mary Baxter - Published on Sep 03, 2019
a child being walked to school by mother
A study from Western University’s Human Environments Analysis Lab suggests that how students get to school can help determine their exposure to air pollution. (iStock.com/MaximFesenko)

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Could the way children get to school affect their health? According to a recent study from Western University, the answer is yes.

The study, published in February is part of a multi-year project conducted by the school’s Human Environments Analysis Lab to better understand how children interact with their environment. And it found that what neighbourhood children live in and how they commute to school help determine their exposure to air pollution.

“Over the last couple of decades, people have come to realize that the way we design our cities has an influence on our health and well-being,” says Jason Gilliland, the study’s lead researcher and the lab’s director. “Children are especially captive to their local environments because they don’t get to choose where they live.”

Begun in 2008, the larger project — special temporal environment and activity monitoring, or STEAM for short — explores how the built environment influences children’s health-related behaviours, including physical activity, the use of active transportation (walking or biking), and healthy eating.

“STEAM was a mixed method, a very large project,” Gilliland says. “We used things like portable GPS monitors, portable accelerometers, portable air-pollution monitors, diaries, surveys, surveys with parents, map-based focus groups [in which we brought] the maps back and talk to the kids about they did in different spaces. We ended up with over 1,000 children. Most of the kids are coming from the London area, but it’s urban, suburban, rural, and we even have more northern populations, northeast of Thunder Bay. The data collection for the STEAM project was between 2009 and 2016. We’re still writing papers.”

TVO.org recently visited Gilliland in his lab to find out more about the most recent study and its main finding — that walking to school is the best way to limit exposure to air pollution.

What was the study’s goal?

The aim of the one-year study was to look at just simply how children’s personal exposure to fine particulate matter [PM2.5] differ during the school commute according to the different modes of travel and according to different neighbourhoods. We just looked at one suburban neighbourhood and one urban neighbourhood. Ideally, in the long term, we would look at many more neighbourhoods.

What did it involve?

It involved 36 students from Grade 5 to 8 in London: 18 students from a suburban neighbourhood and 18 students from an urban neighbourhood. They wore a portable GPS unit that told us where they went, and we used a portable air-pollution monitor. They wore it in a little camera case on their back, and it had a tube on their shoulder.

We had a total of 101 commutes to and from school we were tracking using the GPS. And the personal exposure to fine particulate matter along the commute routes.

Why is pollution bad for kids?

It’s bad for everybody, but it’s bad for kids, especially, because they have less developed lungs. They inhale at a faster rate. These fine particles can cause respiratory ailments, so it can exacerbate asthma.

In fact, research is coming out more and more that links air pollution to a whole slew of problems beyond lung function, including cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. A study just came out last month that linked air pollution and mental health.

What did your study find?

The most important finding of that study is that children who walk to school are exposed to lower PM2.5 concentrations than those in cars or riding the bus — between car and walk, we’re talking about 10 per cent.

So you think, well, how can that be — they’re outside, and that’s where the air is? Well, you know, first of all, bus windows and car windows can be open, but it’s based on the vehicle, the vehicle’s pollution itself, and also the proximity of the child to the tailpipe or to where the pollution is appearing. When we did this study, most of the buses were diesel.

What’s next after this study?

Since this study, we’ve gone on to do an incredible amount of research on active school travel [e.g., walking, biking] and active community. We know that walking is the most convenient form of physical activity for people of all ages, and the journey to and from school, that daily commute, is one of the most convenient opportunities for the child to get their recommended daily amounts of physical activity.

We know that we have a crisis of sedentary living. Less than 10 per cent of kids are getting the recommended daily amounts of physical activity that they need for optimal growth and development. This is Canadians five to 17 years old. We’ve shown [in our work], and other research has shown, that active travel is linked to increased physical activity, increased school readiness, environmental competence — getting to know your neighbourhood, getting to know your environment, and building self-confidence. Also, it’s an opportunity for social cohesion. If kids walk with other friends, a little bit of freedom. And so there are so many benefits that happen for the child, for the individual.

And then the other side is, if we have fewer kids being driven to school, so fewer cars coming to this school, then there’s less idling around the school. There’s less pollution around the school. So that’s one of the things that we want to actually look at later on.

Then we tried to figure out what are the features of an environment that make someone walk versus being driven. We’ve shown some things like major traffic flow and major streets crossed are barriers to walking. Publicly provided street trees in several of our studies of green space promote walking. The connectivity of the street network — so, the directness of the routes — also promote walking.

Really, one of the biggest factors that we need to change [to encourage active school travel] is parental attitudes about safety. And so one of the things that we [lab researchers] have been working on with community collaborators is active and safe routes to school, school travel-planning.

What would you like to see changed to mitigate kids’ exposure to pollution on the way to school?

For me, with this study, obviously the no-brainer is getting better vehicles, better buses, electric vehicle, electric buses, or hybrid buses.

I think we could have better cycling infrastructure and better walking infrastructure. So often I see the tailpipe at the side of the road where the sidewalk is. Just getting farther away from the tailpipe is good for the kids. So sidewalks set back are healthier than the sidewalks right at the side of the road.

Neighbourhoods should be designed to maximize the number of children who are able to be able to walk between home and school. And I think whether that’s making sure that we build with sidewalks, making sure that we plant trees, making sure that we don’t just build big-box schools on the fringes of cities and bus kids there.

We really need to think carefully about how we site schools. It’s been a sad fact that with population changes, school boards have been closing schools in small towns and inner cities and then busing kids out to the suburbs rather than, let’s say, repairing that school or rather busing some kids in from the suburbs to that school.

You’re a father. Do your two daughters walk to school?

My kids have to take the school bus because they go to full French first-language schools, and the schools are at the outskirts of town. That’s a reality of life. They could walk to one school [in our neighbourhood] — it’s an English school — but we believe in the French education system.

But what’s interesting is both of them have had jobs where they’ve gotten off the school bus and walked to another school and then walked kids home from their own schools. And they’re ridiculously active. You’ll see them at the YMCA at least three times a week swimming and running and biking.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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