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Traffic Jam Behavior Can Drastically Affect Exposure to Pollutants

Aug 29, 2016 12:43 AM EDT

Traffic gridlock is notorious for negative social and economic impacts, and now it turns out that bad city planning is also harming our health.

Researchers at the University of Surrey published a paper showing that people stuck in traffic are exposed to a shocking increase in air pollution. Some simple adjustments can lessen pollution in the car by up to 76 percent.

Commuters who keep their windows closed and turn off their fan see a significant decrease in toxic fumes. Recirculating the air already in the car is perfectly fine as it does not introduce the pollutant particles from the idling cars outside into the air you're breathing.

Traffic jam pollution levels have also been found at red lights, where conditions contributing to the increased pollution are similar. The worst combination of behaviors is keeping the windows closed and fan on -- the toxic fumes are being brought into the car and given no way out.

"Where possible and with weather conditions allowing, it is one of the best ways to limit your exposure by keeping windows shut, fans turned off and to try and increase the distance between you and the car in front while in traffic jams or stationary at traffic lights," senior author of the research and academic at the University of Surrey Dr. Prashant Kumar said in a news release.

"If the fan or heater needs to be on, the best setting would be to have the air re-circulating within the car without drawing in air from outdoors."

The research conducted by Kumar and his team was published recently in the Royal Society of Chemistry's Journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts. Kumar is part of an Air Pollution Task Force formed this year by the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Air pollution is a health crisis, leading to millions of premature deaths annually. Mass public transportation, cleaner automobile technology and better planning of roadways can all assist in keeping the globe clean and people healthy.

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