AIR POLLUTION, TRANSPORTATION, AND OUR HEALTH
Most people can identify air pollution, whether it be smoke plumes from factories or exhaust from vehicles. This pollution is composed of toxic particles from both human-made sources and natural sources like dust and soil, and it can harm our health in many ways—damage to our hearts, lungs, brains, and the health of newborn infants, for example.
The link between transportation and
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 most 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, neurological and other body system diseases.
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 our major organs.
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, three 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 half of greenhouse gas pollution in Virginia.
How air pollution from transportation affects
Traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) affects our bodies in a myriad of ways and has a significant impact on our communities.
Breathing: 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. 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.
Heart Health: 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 with abnormal heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation. Air pollution worsens hypertension, or high blood pressure. Pregnant people are also at higher risk of hypertensive disorders, which can affect the health of their babies.
Pediatric Health: 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. Children who play outdoor sports in communities with high ozone, or who live near busy roads, have a higher risk of developing asthma. Air pollution has also been linked to harms to children’s brain development.
Inequity: Certain groups are more vulnerable to air pollution than others. A study found that those who live in predominantly African American communities had more 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 because residential segregation means they live in areas that have increased air pollution exposure. Another study demonstrated that Hispanics and African Americans, have a higher risk of premature death from particle pollution than white populations. Socioeconomic status also plays a role in the risk of air pollution on health.
The Clean Air Act
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, 14 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 fewer asthma attacks, lost workdays, emergency room visits, and premature deaths.
How Virginia is Tackling
Virginia has become a national leader in clean electricity policy, as a result of passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act and joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The 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 this act into law, making Virginia the first Southern state to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2050 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 RGGI.
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI): The RGGI is a cooperative, market-based program to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector. It 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.
What Can You Do?
Here are some steps health professionals and the public can take to help clean our air:
Elect officials who support strong climate change and transportation reform policies.
Speak to legislators and candidates, either in person or via letter or email.
Raise awareness about the detrimental effects of air pollution through formal presentations and informal discussions.
Discuss the role of air pollution in worsening health with patients and ways they can reduce their exposure.
Join VCCA and participate in our campaign to promote clean transportation for the Commonwealth.
Health professionals have a vital role in communicating the relationship between health and air pollution from transportation. A cleaner transportation system will go a long way towards helping Virginians lead longer, healthier lives.