Is Traffic-Related Air Pollution Killing Us?

With vacation season getting underway, and many families planning road trips, a UConn Health researcher discusses the impact of traffic-related air pollution on our health.

Bumper to bumper traffic. (Getty Images)

With vacation season getting underway, and many families planning road trips, a UConn Health researcher discusses the impact of traffic-related air pollution on our health. (Getty Images)

It’s summer getaway season. According to AAA, two-thirds of American families are taking a summer vacation this year, and more than half of us are planning a road trip.

But is the traffic-related air pollution caused by our road trips, as well as our daily commuting, having a negative impact on our health?

UConn Today discussed this question with environmental health expert Douglas Brugge, professor and Health Net Inc. Endowed Chair in Community Medicine at the UConn School of Medicine, whose research the last decade has focused on increasing scientific knowledge about the health risks associated with traffic-related air pollution, especially adjacent to highways.

Q: What is traffic actually releasing into the air, and where is it most prevalent?
A pollutant called ultrafine particles (UFP) has been our research focus because we think that these particles are a good candidate for explaining some of the adverse health effects seen in populations living next to highways and major roadways. UFP have not been studied as much as some other pollutants because it is hard to assess personal exposure, as the particles change in concentration rapidly in space and time while people move in and out of fields of high exposure.

Q: When we breathe in these ultrafine particles what happens or can happen?
UFP can get deep into the lungs, but worse, they also have the ability to cross biological barriers and make it into other parts of the body. They can travel into the blood and may affect blood vessels, such as the coronary arteries responsible for heart attacks. Even more worrisome, they can travel down the olfactory nerve at the back of the nose and pass into the brain.  There is increasing evidence that particulate air pollution is associated with neurological disorders such as autism in children and cognitive decline in the elderly.

Q: What has your research with Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health shown over the past 10 years that traffic-related air pollution may be doing to our health outcomes?
A: We have gone to painstaking lengths to assign exposure to people living next to and farther away from highways in the Boston area. When we used extreme care to assign exposure as accurately as we could, we found that exposure to UFP was associated with levels of inflammation in the blood. Ours was among the first studies to show that long-term exposure to UFP was associated with health effects.

Q: Who is most at risk for traffic-related air-pollution?
First, those at highest risk are people living near sources of traffic pollution, especially next to major highways or highly traveled urban roadways.  I would have particular concern for people living within 100 to 200 meters, and more so if they live in buildings without good mechanical air handling systems that reduce indoor exposure. Second, the evidence suggests children and older adults, along with people with pre-existing illnesses, might be at greatest risk.

Q: What are some ways those who are at highest risk right now can lower their risk, or improve their health?
A: There are two broad categories of protection.  The first are structural and societal, such as efforts to reduce emissions from motor vehicles, or building housing and schools farther from highways. The second are personal actions that individuals or families can take. These would include putting an air filter in your home and choosing to engage in vigorous physical activity on quiet streets and in parks where there is not so much pollution.

Q: What solutions are you and your research partners investigating to respond to this public health issue?
We are investigating both structural and personal ways to reduce exposure. A current study, led by my former colleagues John Durant and Neelashi Hudda at Tufts, is assessing the quality of ventilation systems in multifamily housing next to a highway in Somerville, Massachusetts, in reducing exposure.  Our new NIH grant, due to start this summer, will be a randomized trial of air filter units in houses next to the same highway. All of our work is community engaged, with community-based partners such as the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership and the City of Somerville itself.

Q: Tell us more about the critical importance of working with community partners, real people and real communities, to help fix this air pollution problem?
Wig Zamore and Ellin Reisner of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership approached me and got me involved in this line of research over a decade ago. They have continued to participate in most of our funded projects, seven to date, and contributed substantially to both the science and translation of what we know into policy and practice locally and regionally. Lydia Lowe of the Chinese Progressive Association has helped us bring the work to Boston’s Chinatown, and Sharon Ron and Barry Keppard of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council have helped us integrate highway pollution concerns into urban planning.

Q: With your research findings mounting about what we know, in your opinion what should be the next steps for regulators and policy makers?
For now, I expect policy around traffic pollution to remain a local or regional initiative. Before there is national level regulation of UFP, there will need to be more and larger studies of the long-term health effects.

Q: In your new book, Particles in the Air, you write about three worldwide air hazards our society may be overlooking. What are they?
Three of the top 10 public health hazards are ambient particulate matter in the air caused by air-pollution, tobacco smoke, and indoor combustion from home heating fuel, and open fires used for heating and cooking. It is time that the public wake up to the fact that these three hazards are the top environmental health concerns.

Q: What is your number one message to the public?
We all need to start thinking about traffic-related air pollution. It may be the deadliest pollutant we breathe. Our scientific evidence is accumulating. Know that living near a highway comes with a whole slew of adverse health outcomes. In addition to respiratory issues, such as asthma in children and lung cancer in adults, there is increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. There is also new emerging evidence that it may have a neurological impact leading to Alzheimer’s and even some evidence of autism.