Driving with your window down exposes you to 80% more air pollution

GUILDFORD, United Kingdom — While it’s well known automobiles are a significant contributor to air pollution, drivers probably don’t think about the dangers of keeping their windows open. A new study by the University of Surrey researchers reveals that drivers who keep their windows down expose themselves to significantly more air pollution than those who keep them up.

Air pollution is a major public health concern. The World Health Organization estimates it kills roughly seven million people globally each year. While air pollutants affects everyone, it can be particularly harmful to drivers in poorer cities. The British team says many drivers can’t afford air-conditioned vehicles and instead keep their windows open to keep cool.

Air pollution is a global problem

The new study looks at air pollution exposure in 10 cities around the world. Those include Dhaka (Bangladesh), Chennai (India), Guangzhou (China), Medellín (Colombia), São Paulo (Brazil), Cairo (Egypt), Sulaymaniyah (Iraq), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Blantyre (Malawi), and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania).

Study authors examine levels of two air pollution components: PM2.5 and PM10. They also focus on peak traffic in the morning and evening and during non-peak hours at mid-day. The report then compares those levels when drivers keep their windows open to when they keep them up and use their fans.

The scientists find the highest levels of air pollution exposure among drivers who keep their windows down. Drivers breathe in less pollution when simply closing windows, but it’s still more than those who use a recirculation system. Those who use a recirculation system in their car are exposed to 80 percent less pollution.

There is also a major difference in air levels during the hours with heavy traffic. Exposure to pollutants during off-peak hours is down 91 percent compared to the morning rush. It’s down 40 percent compared to the evening peak hours.

How do you keep bad air out?

Researchers reveal that although cabin filters are effective at filtering out large particles like PM2.5 and PM10, they’re unable to filter out most fine particles. Given that fine particle exposure has ties to a number of health problems, the findings suggest more efficient car filters are necessary to protect drivers from pollution. Short of that, researchers say the answer is greener cars.

“To be blunt, we need as many cars as possible off the road, or more green vehicles to reduce air pollution exposure. This is yet a distant dream in many ODA countries. Air-conditioned cars are unattainable for many poor and vulnerable commuters across the world, but our data is clear and coherent for all 10 participating cities,” says Prashant Kumar, director of Surrey’s Global Centre for Clean Air Research in a university release.

“The study has drawn important conclusions that can help commuters make decisions in their day-to-day lives to protect their health. Simple choices, like traveling during off-peak hours, can go a long way in reducing their exposure to air pollution,” adds senior author Abdus Salam.

The study is published in Science of the Total Environment.

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