Traffic crawls through downtown Atlanta along Interstate 75/85. Traffic crawls through downtown Atlanta along Interstate 75/85. Traffic crawls through downtown Atlanta along Interstate 75/85. (Photo: Barry Williams / Getty Images)

Rush-hour traffic may literally be killing you

New study in downtown Atlanta discovers that the pollution inside your car is twice as bad as previously thought.

Sitting in traffic isn't the most productive use of time. Sure, you can listen to podcasts or jam to some groovy driving tunes. But did you know that driving in rush hour traffic can actually be bad for your health?

That's according to a team of professors in Atlanta, Ga. And they should know: the traffic in the city's metro area is ranked the fourth worst in America, and the eighth worst in the entire world. The average commuter in Atlanta spends about 71 hours stuck in traffic annually. That's three entire days each year of just sitting in traffic. Even the most entertaining radio DJs would have trouble getting you through all that.

There has been plenty of research about "traffic pollution" – the congested air that results from increased vehicle emissions that degrades ambient air quality. Indeed, recent studies have shown excess morbidity and mortality for people living near major roadways. But this new study has gone a step further and measured the air pollution inside your car, and specifically during rush hour.

Even "The Walking Dead" realizes how bad Atlanta traffic is, especially during a zombie apocalypse.Even 'The Walking Dead' realizes how bad Atlanta traffic is, especially during a zombie apocalypse. (Photo: AMC)

The professors installed a special device in the passenger seats of 30 different cars as they completed more than 60 rush-hour commutes. What they found was startling: The levels of some forms of harmful air inside the car was found to be twice as high as previously believed.

"There are a lot of reasons an in-car air sample would find higher levels of certain kinds of air pollution," said Heidi Vreeland, a doctoral student who worked on the study. "The chemical composition of exhaust changes very quickly, even in the space of just a few feet. And morning sun heats the roadways, which causes an updraft that brings more pollution higher into the air."

In addition to the team from Atlanta, professors from North Carolina, Illinois and Israel also helped on the project. Rachel Golan, of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, has co-written several papers about the adverse health effects of traffic with her colleague Jeremy Sarnat at Emory University in Atlanta.

"There's still a lot of debate about what types of pollution are cause for the biggest concern and what makes them so dangerous," said Michael Bergin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who worked on the research. "If these chemicals are as bad for people as many researchers believe, then commuters should seriously be rethinking their driving habits."

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