Rush Hour Pollution Worse Than Previously Thought

I have long suspected being around car exhaust pollution in denser traffic areas was an underrated health threat, and so it’s nice to see research actually done on this phenomenon.

The first in-car measurements of exposure to pollutants that cause oxidative stress during rush hour commutes has turned up potentially alarming results. The levels of some forms of harmful particulate matter inside car cabins was found to be twice as high as previously believed.

Most traffic pollution sensors are placed on the ground alongside the road and take continuous samples for a 24-hour period. Exhaust composition, however, changes rapidly enough for drivers to experience different conditions inside their vehicles than these roadside sensors. Long-term sampling also misses nuanced variabilities caused by road congestion and environmental conditions.

To explore what drivers are actually exposed to during rush hour, researchers from Duke University, Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology strapped specially designed sampling devices into the passenger seats of cars during morning rush hour commutes in downtown Atlanta.

The devices detected up to twice as much particulate matter as the roadside sensors. The team also found that the pollution contained twice the amount of chemicals that cause oxidative stress, which is thought to be involved in the development of many diseases including respiratory and heart disease, cancer, and some types of neurodegenerative diseases.

The results were published on June 27 in the journal Atmospheric Environment.
“We found that people are likely getting a double whammy of exposure in terms of health during rush-hour commutes,” said Michael Bergin, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke. “If these chemicals are as bad for people as many researchers believe, then commuters should seriously be rethinking their driving habits.”

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Oxidative stress — the phenomenon antioxidant foods are supposed to address — is thought to play a role in a wide range of diseases including Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, heart failure and heart attack, sickle cell disease, autism, infection, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.

“There’s still a lot of debate about what types of pollution are cause for the biggest concern and what makes them so dangerous,” Bergin said. “But the bottom line is that driving during rush hour is even worse than we thought.”