Traffic and air quality: Driving change through research

Traffic-related air pollution can have an impact on your health. Traffic-related air pollution can have an impact on your health.

Do you live, work or play near a busy roadway? If so, the quality of the outdoor air may be impacting your health. In Canada and around the world, air pollution can lead to the development or worsening of health conditions, such as asthma, and can even result in premature death. But the good news is, researchers are examining the issues and have some tips.

The mixture of vehicle exhaust, secondary air pollutants formed in the atmosphere, evaporative emissions from vehicles, and non-combustion emissions (such as road dust and tire wear) is referred to as traffic-related air pollution (TRAP).

“TRAP is generally recognized as one of the top three most important sources of air pollution in our cities,” says Mathieu Rouleau, Senior Evaluator at Health Canada. “We see it every day, we get used to it, but it can have a significant impact on our health.”

Mathieu works with air quality specialists at Environment and Climate Change Canada to better understand the impact of vehicles on air quality and health in Canada. More specifically, he and his colleagues evaluate the contribution of exposure to TRAP to health impacts such as symptoms of asthma, hospitalizations, reduced pulmonary function, lung cancer and premature death.

“Air pollution takes on many different forms, with multiple gases and particles of varying shapes and sizes,” he explains. “Some will settle or react quickly near the roads, while most disperse 250 meters away. Some can even be found up to 2 kilometers away, depending on environmental conditions.”

This means that the impact of traffic can be felt quite far from the roads themselves. In fact, Mathieu has been able to demonstrate that 4 out of 10 people in Canada live close enough to high-traffic roads (within 250 meters) to be impacted by TRAP. However, by living farther away, exposure is reduced and so are the potential health effects.

Want to do your part to reduce TRAP? Mathieu recommends better planning of outings and avoiding unnecessary use of the car. Try using your bike or taking the bus more often. If the best mode of transportation for you remains the car, ensuring that it is properly maintained will also help reduce harmful emissions.

Commuter car conundrum

We know that just living near a major road is associated with health risks, but what about the time spent on the road, closest to the source?

“Commuter exposure is really important. On average, we spend about 5% of our time (over an hour a day) in vehicles and this can account for up to half of our exposure to certain air pollutants,” explains Gary Mallach, Environmental Health Scientist at Health Canada.

One thing you can do to reduce your TRAP exposure in your vehicle is to use a cabin air filter. “Most new vehicles can accommodate a cabin air filter, and it’s important to know that it can help protect you,” recommends Gary.

Located on many vehicles behind the glove compartment, the cabin air filter is responsible for filtering the air that enters the cabin of the vehicle through the ventilation system. This piece of equipment helps keep the air quality healthy inside your vehicle, as it filters out things like particulate matter from vehicle exhaust.

To understand the impact of these filters on commuters, Gary and his team measured the air pollution levels in vehicles both with and without cabin air filters in place. They found that electrostatic cabin air filters could help reduce levels of particulate matter by about a third.

The researchers also found that exposure to air pollution while commuting can impact cognitive function, stress hormone levels, and cardiovascular function. Cabin air filters can help reduce exposure to air pollutants while commuting.

“It’s important to recognize that these everyday pollution exposures have measurable impacts on our bodies,” says Gary. “Just like changing the oil in your car, make sure you replace the cabin air filter according to the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule.”

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