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Get out of the car and into the fresh air February 25, 2010

Posted by Lindsey Realmuto in Environmental Health, Wellness.
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Of course everyone knows (or probably has heard) that vehicle emissions contribute to air pollution that can adversely affect your health. But do you actually know how much cars are contributing to the degradation of our air quality? Or what they’re actually emitting?

With EPA’s AirData website, you can find out just that. As a resident of DC, I was interested in figuring out how much cars are emitting in this area and what exactly I’m breathing in on a daily basis. According to the EPA, highway vehicles, which are passenger cars or high clearance vehicles, are the number one emitting source of volatile organic compounds (VOC), emitting a little over 5,400 tons of VOCs in the DC area per year.  VOC’s, according to the EPA, are made up of a variety of chemicals and in terms of health effects, VOCs can cause:  “Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system.” Just to name a few…

Additionally, highway vehicles are the number one emitting source of carbon monoxide (responsible for emitting over 65,000 tons). Carbon monoxide can reduce the amount of oxygen delivered to our organs and also contributes to ground-level ozone, which can cause detrimental health effects to the respiratory system.  And on top of all that, highway vehicles are the number one emitter of nitrogen oxides (emitting nearly 9,000 tons) and the fifth largest emitter of PM 2.5 (particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns). Nitrogen oxides, particularly nitrogen dioxide, can contribute to reduced respiratory function as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation. Nitrogen oxides also contribute to ground-level ozone (the health effects of which have already been mentioned) and acid rain.

In response to these numbers, some might argue that people need to be driving more because we’re generally traveling farther distances these days, but the numbers prove otherwise.

According to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, 25 percent of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40 percent of all trips are within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Yet more than 82 percent of trips five miles or less are made by personal motor vehicle.”

So what exactly does all this mean for your health? All in all, the outcome does not look good. By relying on a motor vehicle to take you everywhere, not only are you degrading the very air you breathe but you’re also depriving yourself of some well-needed exercise. According to the CDC, more than half of adults in the United States are not regularly active at the recommended levels. By walking or biking five of those one mile car trips a week, you could be getting an extra hour and a half of exercise per week! (Based on a 20 minute mile pace).  So next time you’re getting ready to leave your house for one of those one mile or two mile trips, take a second to think about the great thing you could be doing for yourself, your neighbors, and for your kids, by just getting out of the car and into the fresh air.

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