Research Impact: The Effects of Traffic Related Air Pollution near Childcare Centres

Air pollution is most obvious when there’s a visible event—say a bushfire or a dust storm—but there are mundane activities that also affect the quality of the air around us, like cooking with gas, lighting a wood burning fire, or driving a car. Breathing in polluted air can affect our lungs and hearts, causing long-term health problems. This is of particular concern for vulnerable members of our community.

There is now a large body of evidence demonstrating the negative impact of air pollution on children’s developing lungs. In particular, transport-related air pollution has been shown to be detrimental to children. This type of air pollution is of particular concern for children who spend time near roads with a high traffic volume—either because they live there or attend kinder or school nearby—which exposes them to higher levels of pollutants, including tiny inhalable particles comprised of combusted carbon, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals.

In 2019 Clare Walter, Dr Elena Schneider-Futschik and Associate Professor Lou Irving investigated the spatial distribution of childcare centres across Melbourne, Victoria, Australia in relation to traffic volumes. Ms Walter and her colleagues used data provided by AURIN, relating to childcare centre location and traffic volume, in their research. They also used AURIN’s visualisation capabilities to map the buffer zones of major roads in relation to childcare centre locations.

Ms Walter and her colleagues found that nearly a quarter of childcare centres were located within 150 metres of a major road, exposing children to harmful traffic-related air pollution. They recommended policy makers adopt best practice guidelines on the location of new childcare centres. The also recommended a number of steps to improve air quality, including indoor ventilation and filtration upgrades and the structuring of play to avoid peak traffic times.

As a result of this research Ms Walter was contacted by Emma Sutcliffe, an electric vehicle charging, conversion, and education specialist. Together the two, along with Nathan Gore-Brown and Chris Nash, founded the Idle Off Project in 2020.

The Idle Off Project educates school students about the dangers of vehicle emissions, both how idling cars and buses pollute the air but also the impact this has on their health. The project leads students through four phases—identifying the issue, looking for a solution, investigation and analysis, and sharing the message—and empowers them to change behaviours in their community. The project is endorsed by a several organisations in Australia and New Zealand, including Asthma Australia and the Lung Foundation Australia.

Ms Walter’s research is also being used to inform part of the Breathe Melbourne project, run by Dr Kate Lycett at Deakin University. The project contains a citizen science aspect being conducted at selected primary schools in the inner west of Melbourne, with funding from the Department of Transport and the Victorian Environment Protection Authority.

These two projects—Idle Off and Breathe Melbourne—aim to make tangible changes to our community and to the air we breathe. Research like Ms Walter’s is supported by the access AURIN provides to a variety of data, allowing researchers to arrive at research outcomes quickly and effectively.