Commuters less able to take a deep breath.

May 17, 2011

 Zuurbier, M, G Hoek, M Oldenwening, K Meliefste, P van den Hazel and B Brunekreef. 2011. Respiratory effects of commuters' exposure to air pollution in traffic. Epidemiology

Synopsis by Heather Volk

Air pollution affects breathing ability after commuting to and from work by car and bus but not on a bicycle.

Breathing traffic air pollution while commuting during rush hour affects airway function in drivers and bus riders but not bikers, report researchers in the journal Epidemiology. Even though the bikers inhaled more air  – and more particulates – during their two-hour commutes, they didn't experience the airflow declines seen in the bus and car riders.

Researchers found the vehicle commuters who inhaled more particulates did worse on the breathing tests: they exhaled less volume of air with higher levels of nitrogen oxide. These measures indicate restricted and inflamed airways. The breathing effects were associated with the short-term exposure to particulate matter (PM10) and soot.

The effects were short lived and disappeared within six hours of exposures. However, commuters are exposed to these conditions every day.

This study provides new evidence that short, real life level exposures to complex mixes of pollutants may impact respiratory function even among healthy adults.

Air pollution exposure for commuters during high traffic times, like rush hour, is very high. In some instances, this exposure may be substantially elevated beyond levels experienced in other aspects of daily life.

Other research has found that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with persistent decreases in children’s lung function and increased asthma rates. Air pollutants have also been linked with cardiovascular disease and measures of systemic inflammation. 

The Netherlands' researchers measured three factors related to breathing ability – lung function, airway resistance and airway inflammation – among healthy, 18- to 56-year-old volunteers before and after they commuted for two hours by bus, car or bicycle. These measures were related to estimates of two sizes of particles (PM2.5 and PM10), the number of particles in the air and soot the commuters inhaled.

Particulate matter refers to tiny particles in the air, commonly generated after the burning of fossil fuels making them present in vehicle exhaust.  Soot is the type of particles that can ignite and burn.

Altogether, the 37 participants took 352 trips, including 16 bike trips, 1 car trip and 15 bus trips.

The authors reported exposure to high numbers of particles was associated with poorer lung function, increased airway resistance and airway inflammation. Notably these effects were present immediately following commuting, but not several hours later. PM10 and soot were also associated with peak expiratory flow directly after exposure.

Car and bus commuters experienced more inflammation based on the amount of particles present and soot concentrations. While bicycle commuting exposed participants to higher levels of pollution, health effects were not changed among the bikers.


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