Drivers May Reduce Air Pollution Health Risks By Avoiding Busy Intersections: Study

Idling cars that are stopped at busy intersections expose drivers to high levels of air pollution, and an increased risk for health problems, according to the findings of a new study.  

U.K. researchers found that a short commute contributed to 25% of the driver’s exposure to pollution, allowing harmful particles to enter a person’s respiratory system. The findings were published online February 3, in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Researchers monitored levels of drivers’ exposure to air pollutants at different points on a route along traffic intersections with light signals. Intersections are typically heavy on pollution due to frequent changes in driving conditions, stopping and accelerating.

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Drivers in the UK spend an average of one and a half hours behind the wheel every day, commute times comparable to many Americans. Dr. Prashant Kumar, lead author of the study, wanted to determine how much of the harmful pollutants emitted by the high number of cars on the road reached drivers.

“Our time spent traveling in cars has remained fairly constant during the past decade despite the efforts to reduce it and with more cars than ever joining the roads, we are being exposed to increasing levels of air pollution as we undertake our daily commutes,” said Kumar.

Researchers from the University of Surrey tested different levels of pollutant particles in different ventilation settings, including with windows open, windows closed with fan at 25% use, windows closed and fan at 100% use, windows closed with the fan off and the heater on 100%, and windows closed with the fan and heater off.

UK drivers spend about two percent of their commute passing through high traffic intersections managed by stop lights. This small amount of time, researchers say, can contribute to 25% of total exposure to pollution.

Peak pollution concentrations were found to be 29 times higher than during free flowing traffic without stop and go conditions.

At stop lights, drivers decelerate, stop and accelerate at lights, often revving engines up to move quickly when lights turn green. Cars at stop lights tend to be closer together at lights, increasing the likelihood of a driver being exposed to vehicle emissions.

Vehicle Emission Health Risks

Motor vehicles are known to emit polluting nano-particles that can contribute to respiratory and heart disease.

Vehicle emissions have been linked to asthma, heart disease and leukemia. Air pollution is responsible for 7 million premature deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Researchers say it may not always be possible to change a commute route to decrease the amount of pollution exposure, but drivers should be aware of the risk busy intersections pose to their health.

The study’s authors recommend keeping windows closed and the fan off to keep exposure to a minimum. They also say to keep a good distance away from the vehicle in front when possible.


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