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‘Ground breaking’ study says low emission zones are a major benefit for child health

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The long-term benefits for children’s health resulting from urban low emission zones are more apparent than ever, according to a new study.

A child who is simply lucky enough to develop in the womb and live their first year in a low emission area can expect to have far less need for prescriptions for a condition like asthma by the time they are five years old.

This new study by the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) and which uses examples in German cities, claims to ‘break new ground’ in the evaluation of environmental and climate policy.

It was carried out in conjunction with the universities of Frankfurt am Main and Maastricht, and the results have been published in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, a leading U.S. health publication.

Researchers say that more than 200 cities in Europe alone have set up low emission zones, largely as a measure to negate the effects of diesel engine emissions, which essentially ban motorised vehicles that emit certain levels of exhaust fumes.

Study ‘breaks new ground’

This research examines Germany, highlighting official air quality measurements as well as anonymised patient data from the largest public health insurance, AOK, which covers about one third of the population. The focus is on the medical prescriptions for half a million newborn children living in an urban environment between 2006 (two years before the start of Germany’s first low emission zone) and 2017.

Hannah Klauber, lead author of the study, said: “We compare children born before and after the introduction of the driving ban with a control group of children from cities that introduced a low emission zone at a later date, but are similar in terms of weather conditions and socio-economic composition.”

The methods used allows for the cause-effect relationship of interest, i.e. the extent to which health in the first five years of life benefits simply from the existence of the protective low emission zone during the period from conception to the first birthday, to be properly examined, During this period, says the team, rapid cell proliferation and an intense phase of epigenetic programming make children especially vulnerable to the toxicological effects of pollution.

What the study confirmed is that previous findings that low emission zones in Germany have led to a 5 per cent reduction in particulate matter pollution. In addition, the evaluation of medical prescriptions yields what the team describes as ‘remarkable new findings’.

Low emission zones, they say, generate a significant cost reduction for the health system over five years, the vast majority (92 per cent) of which stem from asthma medications. The number of asthma prescriptions falls by 13 per cent, and since these are predominantly high value preparations, the cost saving is as high as 21 per cent. Overall analysis shows that medication costs for children born into a low emission zone are reduced by around 30 million euros until 2017.

Nicholas Koch, another of the co-authors and head of the Policy Evaluation Lab at MCC, said: “Our quasi-experimental research approach offers plenty of room to look more broadly at the benefits of policies, depending on the data. This is generally relevant for the evaluation of environmental and climate policies – and not least with regard to wider driving bans. There will likely be heated debates on this kind of interventions, and thus a need to quantify health effects properly.”

Author: Simon Weedy

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