Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Adults Make Heavy Traffic of Asthma

By Stephen Luntz

Wood smoke and heavy traffic fumes contribute to the severity of asthma symptoms in adults, researchers at the University of Melbourne have confirmed.

The conclusion may be unsurprising, yet Dr John Burgess of the School of Population Health says this is the first study to investigate environmental factors affecting middle-aged adults. “There is a huge amount of work done on the relationship of wood smoke and traffic pollution to asthma but it is all done on children, adolescents and young adults,” Burgess says.

The Tasmanian Longitudinal Health Study has been running since 1968, tracking children born in Tasmania in the early 1960s. Burgess used data from 1383 individuals who were 44 at the time of reporting to investigate their exposure to smoke from wood fires and traffic pollution.

“Seventy per cent of the sample are still living in Tasmania, so traffic is not all that heavy,” Burgess says. Despite this, those who lived near main roads had an 80% increase in symptoms over those who did not.

Wood smoke produced an 11% increase in symptoms, but Burgess notes this is not from having a wood fire in one’s own home, but from the effect of smoke outdoors, particularly in the Tamar Valley where temperature inversions frequently trap smoke close to the ground.

Burgess warns against drawing conclusions from the larger increase associated with traffic pollution, but agrees that many other parts of Australia would have more of a traffic problem and fewer wood-fired heaters.

The study, published in Respirology, controlled for factors such as the heating and cooking systems present in participants’ houses. Burgess notes that wood smoke remains a serious issue in much of the developing world.