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Most people can identify air pollution in their communities, whether it be smoke plumes from factories or exhaust from vehicles. This pollution is composed of toxic particles from both human-made sources, such as vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plants, and natural sources like dust and soil. Unfortunately, this pollution can harm our health in many ways,  including damage to our hearts, lungs, brains, and even the health of newborn infants. 


The link between transportation and
air pollution

Transportation accounts for more than half of air pollution in the United States, and automobiles are the primary mobile source. This type of pollution, commonly referred to as traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) contains the following pollutants: particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and greenhouse gases.

Particulate matter (PM): While there are many sizes of particulate matter, PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, is associated with the greatest number of health problems. It consists of particles that are less than one-tenth of the diameter of human hair and is a major component of motor vehicle exhaust. PM2.5 can enter our lungs and bloodstream and has been associated with respiratory, cardiovascular, neurologic and other body system diseases. 

Transportation & Air Pollution

Carbon monoxide (CO): Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is emitted when the carbon in vehicle fuel does not fully burn. Vehicle exhaust makes up 75% of all carbon monoxide emissions in the US and up to 95% in cities.  Inhaling CO can block oxygen to the rest of our major organs, like the brain or heart.

Ozone: While ozone in the upper atmosphere protects us by blocking the sun’s UV rays, ground-level ozone is a strong irritant to the respiratory system, acting like a sunburn on the lungs. Ozone forms when chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides react together in heat and sunlight. Together they form ground-level ozone, which is a significant component of smog. Benzene, acetaldehyde, and 1,3 butadiene, 3 types of VOCs emitted from vehicles, are also associated with certain cancers.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx): These pollutants from vehicle emissions contribute to both particulate matter and ground-level ozone. NOx irritates the airways but can also impair the immune system in fighting against respiratory infections like flu or pneumonia. 


Sulfur dioxide (SO2): Sulfur dioxide is a major component of diesel exhaust. When it reacts in the atmosphere, it can produce fine particles that are particularly problematic for those with asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions. 


Greenhouse gases: Motor vehicle exhaust contains large amounts of carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases trap heat in our atmosphere and are causing the Earth to warm. The emissions from cars, trucks, and buses account for almost one half of greenhouse gas pollution in Virginia.


How air pollution from transportation affects
our health

Traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) affects our bodies in a myriad of ways and has a significant impact on our communities as a whole.

How Air Pollution Affects Health

Respiratory: Exposure to high levels of air pollution has been linked to the development of respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema. Pollutants can exacerbate these lung conditions in those who already have them, leading to increased emergency room use and hospitalizations. Children who live in communities that have high levels of pollutants from vehicle emissions and fossil fuel combustion have been shown to have measurable lung damage over the long-term. People are also more susceptible to lung infections like bronchitis when exposed to air pollution, and children have been shown to have a higher risk of respiratory illnesses.


Cardiovascular: Pollutants like PM2.5 have been shown to affect heart health. Studies have shown that air pollution can cause the blockage of blood vessels and the lowering of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, or ‘good’ cholesterol, both of which can lead to stroke and increased risk of heart disease.  Acute exposures to air pollution have also been associated as triggers for abnormal heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation. Another cardiovascular issue linked to air pollution is worsening hypertension, or high blood pressure. Pregnant women are also at higher risk of hypertensive disorders, which can, in turn, affect the health of their babies.

Pediatric population: Air pollution is particularly harmful to children, whose lungs, hearts and brains are still developing. The NIEHS-funded Children’s Health Study from the University of Southern California has shown that higher air pollution levels increase respiratory infections, while lower air pollution levels allow for better lung development.  In addition, children who play outdoor sports in high ozone communities, or who live near busy roads, have a higher risk of developing asthma. Living in communities that have high air pollutant amounts from vehicle emissions and fossil fuel combustion is associated with measurable lung damage. Air pollution has also been linked to harms to children’s brain development.


Environmental inequity: Unfortunately, certain groups are more vulnerable to air pollution than others. A study found that those who live in predominantly African-American communities had a greater number of premature deaths from particle pollution than those in predominantly white communities. Another study showed that African-Americans are at greater risk from hazardous air pollutants from traffic sources, and due to residential segregation, African-Americans live in areas that have increased air pollution exposure. It should be noted that another study demonstrated that Hispanics and African-Americans, have a higher risk of premature death from particle pollution when compared to white populations. A lower socioeconomic status also plays a role in the risk of air pollution on health.       

The Clean Air Act Rollback

Section 177 of the Clean Air Act grants states the power to follow California standards regarding tailpipe pollution versus federal standards. As of September 2019, fourteen states and the District of Columbia have chosen to follow California’s stricter standards, as auto pollution has cost $37 billion in health and climate costs. The Clean Air Futures report from the American Lung Association showed that health benefits of reduced tailpipe pollution include reduced asthma attacks, lost work days, emergency room visits and premature deaths.  Unfortunately, the Trump administration recently rolled back the standards set forth in the Clean Air Act, including removing authority from the states to set their own standards. The rollback is currently in a lawsuit between the ‘clean car’ states and the Trump administration.

The Clean Air Act Rollback

How Virginia is Tackling
Air Pollution

In 2020, Virginia passed landmark legislation to reduce air pollution from power plants. Through passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act and our joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Virginia has become a national leader in clean electricity policy. Our next challenge is to reduce air pollution from the transportation sector - which accounts for approximately 45% of carbon emissions in the Commonwealth.


Clean Economy Act: In April 2020, Governor Northam signed the Clean Economy Act becoming the first southern state to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2050. This will be done by capping fossil fuel emissions, lowering energy needs through investments in energy efficiency, and focusing on solar and wind energy sources. With this act, Virginia also joins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).


Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI): The RGGI is a cooperative, market-based program to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector, and currently includes 11 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Virginia plans to use the revenue generated from this program to invest in clean, renewable energy development and jobs, energy efficiency, and flooding resilience.

How VA is Tackling Air Pollution

What Can You Do?

2021 will be a critical year for Virginia to reduce air pollution from transportation to protect the health of our families and communities. Here are some actions health professionals and the public can take to ensure that we take the steps needed to clean our air: 


  • Vote to elect officials who will support strong climate change and transportation reform policies 

  • Speak to legislators and candidates for office, either through in-person meetings or via letter

  • Raise awareness of the detrimental effects of air pollution within the community through formal presentations and informal discussions

  • Discuss the crucial role of air pollution in worsening health with patients and how they can reduce their own exposure

  • Join Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and participate in our 2021 campaign to promote clean transportation for the Commonwealth


Health professionals have a vital role in communicating and educating on the relationship between health and air pollution from transportation. A clean transportation system will go a long way towards helping Virginians lead longer, healthier lives.

What Can You Do?
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