Middle aged Australians who live near major roads are more likely than others to suffer from asthma, a study has found.

Based on a study of around 700 participants over five years, the research found that Australians aged between 45 and 50 who lived less than 200 metres from a major road had a 50 per cent higher risk of asthma, wheeze and lower lung function compared with those who lived more than 200 metres from a main road.

Lead author Dr Gayan Bowatte of the University of Melbourne Allergy and Lung Health Unit said the study showed that governments must find ways to further reduce road pollution notwithstanding that Australia’s pollutant levels are already low.

In particular, he says, there is a need to address pollution caused by trucks using diesel fuel.

“Diesel is much more harmful than petrol because of the composition of the fuel,” Bowatte said. “When it burns, diesel produces more pollutants.”

Around Australia, issues associated with urban density and public health have assumed growing importance as more people live in units and apartments.

In a review of evidence conducted in 2012, for example, the Heart Foundation found that compact cities (as opposed to more widespread cities) are protective of cardiovascular health as they encourage greater walking, but they are also correlated with slightly higher incidences of respiratory conditions.

The authors said the study suggested that environmental exposure played a significant role to a growing prevalence of asthma after the sector half of the 20th century.

“In particular, the role of traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) exposures in exacerbating or causing asthma has attracted substantial interest,” the researchers wrote.

“Our study adds to the existing body of evidence that even relatively low levels of TRAP exposure are associated with asthma and poor lung function in adults.”

The project surveyed about 700 participants from the Tasmanian Longitudinal Health Study when they were aged 45 and 50.

Although the Tasmanian Health Study started in Tasmania, participants are currently distributed in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

It defined major roads using Australian transport hierarchy codes supplied by the Public Sector Mapping Agencies.

State classifications vary slightly but usually include highways, freeways and arterial roads that link major metropolitan activity centres.