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How bad is exposure to 'rush hour' pollution?

October 05, 2017
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It's no secret that rush hour traffic emissions are detrimental.

Recent findings may clarify just how bad these pollutants can be, with levels of some harmful particulates inside car cabins twice as high as previously believed. In a study by researchers from Duke University, Emory University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, teams attached uniquely-designed sampling devices to the passenger seats of cars during rush-hour commutes in downtown Atlanta. These devices were created by Roby Greenwald, a research assistant professor at Emory at the time, to draw in air at a similar rate to the human lung. For the experiment, these “lungs” were secured to the passenger seats of more than 30 different cars, and the detectable levels of pollution recorded as they completed more than 60 rush-hour commutes. The results of this study were published in the journal Atmospheric Environment. The results were expected to be similar to tests done by roadside sensors, but exhaust composition can change rapidly enough for drivers to experience different conditions inside their vehicles than those recorded outside. The team found that the pollution they recorded 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.

“If these chemicals are as bad for people as many researchers believe, then commuters should seriously be rethinking their driving habits,” comments Michael Bergin, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke.

Reactive oxygen species found by this study can cause the body to produce chemicals to respond to the reactive oxygens. Particulate matter causes the same response. In combination, the exposure triggers an overreaction that can be destructive to healthy cells and DNA. “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 continues, “but the bottom line is that driving during rush hour is even worse than we thought.” “This is really an urban planning failure,” says Greenwald, “in the case of Atlanta, the poor air quality on the highways is due to the fact that 6 million people live in the metro area, and most of them have little choice but to get into an automobile to go to work or school or the store or wherever. Auto-centric transportation plans do not scale well to cities of this size, and this is one more example of how traffic negatively affects your health.” The American Lung Association recommends carpooling or combining trips to your destinations. And if you have the option, opt to use buses, subways, light rail systems, commuter trains, or other alternatives to driving your car.  
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