People know that air pollution is bad for their health, that auto exhaust emissions contribute to air pollution, and that certain cities suffer worse air pollution than others. Some people pay attention to smog reports and even avoid strenuous activities on smoggy days. What most people don’t know is that there is a certain type of auto emission pollutant that discriminates in a most predictable but unfair way. It’s also a pretty safe assumption that people aren’t fully aware of the severity of the health impacts from this pollutant.
Every year, hundreds of decisions are made in which the life and health of thousands of people are unknowingly sacrificed to this pollutant for the convenience or profit of others who are relatively safe from it. Second hand cigarette smoke, GMOs, and high tension power lines, have all captured the public attention and sparked outcries for change. When the public becomes aware of this auto exhaust pollutant and the pathology and inequality of its health impact, it is reasonable to believe they will demand a dramatic change in our transportation priorities.
To understand this pollutant and how it works, one most first understand that there are different types of air pollution – even from a single source like an automobile. Most people think of smog. Few people are aware of the more dangerous and discriminatory particulate pollution, also known as ultra-fine particulate pollution (UFP). Exposure to this type of pollution is entirely dependent on proximity to source. In other words, exposure depends on how close you live or work near a busy roadway, whether a road is expanded near you, whether your child is in a school near a busy roadway, or how much time you spend driving. In a previous article, I referenced studies regarding the health impacts of UFP pollution, including the following findings:
- Auto emission polution kills 50,000 people annually in the U.S. Heart disease, lung function impairment, leukemia, asthma, and lung cancer, are some of the conditions that have been associated with UFP exposure
- The UFP high danger zone is the area roughly within 1,000 – 1,500 feet of either side of a high-traffic roadway, with variations due to topography, wind direction, and other factors.
- UFP substantially stunts lung development in children living within 500 meters of busy roadways compared to those living more than 1,500 meters away.
- 6 million school children are exposed to dangerous levels of UFP because of the location of their schools.
- Increasing road capacity to ease traffic congestion may provide temporary relief but has the opposite effect in the long run through a process known as “induced demand.” UFP may be increased even in the near term through increased auto trips at heavier engine loads and higher RPMs than standing traffic.
- Even if all cars become electric, tire rubber contains known carcinogens that become airborne near roadways.
- The building and widening of highways through urbanized areas subject residents to increased health risks from an increased number of cars.
- Low income and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by UFPs.
Schools, homes, and apartment buildings continue to be built and occupied near busy highways, essentially comprising toxic airborne waste zones. It’s time people exposed, or about to be exposed, to UFPs are informed. They have a right to know. The repercussions may be dramatic. Imagine stepping out of your home, watching your child play, picking your child up from school, knowing that years may be getting deducted from your child’s life (and your’s) by exposure to unseen, often unscented, auto emission UFPs; Not only years of life, but quality of life from chronic illness, learning disabilities, and under-performance. Residents and parents of children in schools within 500 meters (approx. 1,500 feet) deserve warnings similar to Prop. 65 warnings – I even created a sample of what one might look like.
Of course, UFPs aren’t the only health threat from cars. Collisions, whether they be single car, multiple car, or car on pedestrian, kill and maim a similar number of people. However, UFPs are also a threat to property values, development, and the continued operation of facilities like schools – if public knowledge of UFPs becomes widespread. People with a choice will be more careful to avoid impacted properties, homes, and facilities – effecting property values and profits. People with less choice may become more active in demanding change. People tend to resent inequality more than equally shared hardships. Unlike the shared burden of smog or the shared risk of auto collisions (or at least unpredictable risk), public knowledge about UFP danger may cause more resistance to road projects, and more expense to mitigate their impact.
In other words, UFPs not only present an unequal health risk, they also present an unequal and profound economic risk. Sadly, economic impacts often accomplish what health and environmental concerns are unable to accomplish: a substantial change in public policy; In this case, a change in the prioritization of transportation projects away from auto-travel is the only policy remedy.
When people view highways as rivers of toxic air importing disease and death into nearby neighborhoods, rather than as simply regional polluters, resistance to road projects and demand for protection from existing highways will dramatically increase. Public knowledge of UFP danger is inevitable as the scientific evidence and publications accumulate, and non-profit organizations, like Environmental Health Coalition, fight against pollution discrimination. The cost of road projects and mitigation, including mitigation of emissions from existing highways, will dramatically increase, making transit projects more cost effective.
Let’s spread the word. Not only will we save lives and promote health and equality, it may be the only thing that finally inspires our local and regional governments to truly prioritize walking, bicycle, and public transit, which in turn will do much to reduce global warming gasses, reduce infrastructure expenses, and create a more livable and just built environment.
Images from Google Earth