Rush Hour Blues

Add air pollution to the perils of that daily trek to your job and back.

By Jessica Ridenour

From June 2007

Accidents and road rage aren’t the only hazards of the daily commute: Anyone who’s been stuck behind a fume-belching diesel truck knows it’s not exactly an enjoyable olfactory experience. And emissions are not only unpleasant, but downright dangerous. A recent study conducted by the Boston-based nonprofit Clean Air Task Force (CATF) concludes that the ubiquitous microscopic diesel particles we breathe in while on the road can contribute to a host of health problems, including cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. The numbers are disturbing, to say the least: Health researchers estimate that 21,000 American lives are shortened by diesel particulate exposure each year.

Don’t assume that by not tailgating a cement mixer you’re avoiding its pollution. “What you can see is not necessarily the best indicator of how clean the air is,” says Michael Halicki, communications director of the Atlanta-based Clean Air Campaign. “We’re not talking about the soot that you can see coming out of the back of a truck, we’re talking about particles that are in the air that you can’t see.”

Because these diesel particulates are so small (less than 2.5 microns), they are able to carry the toxins deeper into the lungs and bloodstream, aggravating asthma and allergic reactions, and even contributing to lung cancer and heart attacks. Even worse, these particles are everywhere—
particularly in urban areas—whether you drive, bike, walk or ride a train to work.

According to the Transportation Research Board, roughly 150 million Americans commute each day—that means roughly half the nation’s population is on the road during rush hour! But we all have to get to work, so what’s a commuter to do?

Think Outside the Car

According to Halicki, finding commuter alternatives is challenging, but there are options. “Carpooling offers the greatest help in getting cars off the road,” he says, “but from a public health standpoint, as far as keeping you out of the particulate and ozone/smog alert days, you’re not doing a very good job.” In the long term though, he explains, the more we can move away from one person per car, the more we make the most of the transportation network—and the more everybody gets where they’re supposed to go. That means less time spent sitting in traffic inhaling noxious fumes, and fewer cars on the road contributing to air pollution. Hybrid vehicles, like carpooling, will also help ease rush hour pollution over the long term.

Trains and buses are promising travel options—as long as they aren’t older diesels or are diesels retrofitted with a diesel particulate filter (DPF), which reduces up to 90% of the tailpipe emissions. “Public transportation, particularly where the rail systems are taking you out of those [polluted] thoroughfares, is certainly an advantage from that [public health] standpoint,” notes Halicki.

But the healthiest commute alternative of all isn’t a mode of transport—you might not even have to leave your house. Telework (also referred to as telecommuting) is a growing trend in the US, with an estimated 30 million Americans working outside the office at least one day a week, according to a USA Today report. It’s not only better for employees’ morale and productivity, but it significantly reduces traffic, pollution and exposure to particulates.

“If everybody in large urban areas did not drive one day a week you’d have 20% less commuter traffic,” says Halicki. His organization promotes the concept of telework to Georgia employers and offers an online toolkit, available to everyone at www.cleanaircampaign.com. “Teleworkers can make a pretty good case that they’re more effective when they’re working at home than when they’re distracted by all the different things that happen in the office, not to mention delays related to traffic congestion,” he adds. “It’s fitting in more with where business culture is these days, and it gives us the added benefit of less traffic on our roads.”

The Long and Grimy Road

Is there a way to drive healthfully off into the smog-obscured sunset? Studies strongly suggest that antioxidants, by reducing the inflammatory effects and oxidative stress produced by diesel particulates, may help protect against this type of pollution. A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine found promising evidence that vitamins C and E may defend children from acute oxidative damage due to air pollution, further supporting antioxidants’ protective role.

New technology and clean air legislation are also making strides toward reducing diesel particulates. Beginning this year, the government is phasing in a requirement that new diesel vehicles run on cleaner-burning fuel—but that doesn’t do much to allay the many dirty diesels still on the road today. According to CATF, pollution from existing diesels can be greatly reduced by a combination of cleaner fuels, rebuilt engines, retrofit emission filters and the purchase of newer, cleaner fleet vehicles. We have to convince our state and local governments to enact diesel clean-up legislation. Once that happens, we can all breathe easier.

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