It’s that time of year again! The traffic levels always rise when kids go back to school. Considering the amount of traffic on our roads, it’s understandable that parents want to drive their kids to school. It’s quicker and easier. Plus, it’s safer than cycling and walking, right?
Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that our kids may not be safer in the car. Here’s why.
Take A Deep Breath. Or Not.
We like to think of our cars are metal cages that insulate us from the dangers outside. Cars are designed to protect us from the elements and from other road users. While driving is still the most dangerous thing that most of us do, we take comfort in the improving safety standards of car manufacturers. Cars have never been so safe.
However, there is at least one danger that they can’t protect us from. Air pollution. And, cars cannot protect us from it because they are the principle cause of it.
Exhaust fumes from fossil fueled vehicles contains a lot of nasties. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is fatal in concentrations higher than that found in any car or roadside. However, even lower concentrations are thought to have health implications, especially for those with heart conditions.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Black carbon and Particulate Matter have been linked to respiratory and/or cardiovascular health problems. Ultra Fine Particles can similarly harm the cardiovascular and respiratory system but in a different way. As the name suggests, these are smaller particles that are of a different chemical make-up to particulate matter. Their smaller size means that they can lodge deeper within the lungs.
But, surely the cabin of your car can keep out the worst of these? Prepare to be shocked. Quoted in the Guardian, Asthma specialist Professor Stephen Holgate warns that air pollution inside your car can be nine to twelve times higher than that outside.
The Effect On Growing Bodies
That’s nine to twelve times the exposure that you would get if you cycled or walked. Several studies have already shown that pedestrians and cyclists are exposed to lower levels of pollution than other commuters. One European study found that bus passengers were exposed to varying levels of pollution depending on the bus itself. Older diesel-burning buses in Dublin exposed their passengers to far higher levels than more modern and clean fuel buses in Barcelona.
While the potential health effects of air pollution are scary for adults, they can cause permanent damage to children’s lungs which are still developing. Air pollution can lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses. A study in Barcelona found a neurological effect as well. Kids exposed to air pollution tended to have problems concentrating and had slower reaction times.
Long commutes are a fact of life for many of us. So, it is a sobering thought that our cars are sucking in the exhaust fumes of the traffic in front and around us. Furthermore, the levels of pollution tends to be at its worst when cars are moving at 30 kph (18 mph) or slower. Rush hour traffic worsens the air we breathe inside our cars.
Can You Ditch The Car?
A lot of us may have no choice but to risk our health in a smog of rush hour traffic. But, a lot of school runs are short trips. Perhaps even unnecessary car journeys. Not only are some kids missing out on the health benefits of exercise by walking or cycling, but they’re being exposed to high concentrations of air pollutants. Professor Sir David King, a former chief advisor to the UK government, likened the air pollution in cars to secondhand cigarette smoke. He advises people to leave their cars behind.
Of course, some people have to drive to work and some have to drive their kids to school. But, maybe other parents can weigh up the health pros and cons before bundling their kids into the backseat.
At least until our roads and streets are filled with electric cars.
- The Guardian – Smoking in cars is banned. But children still inhale toxic fumes in backseats
- The Guardian – Air pollution more harmful to children in cars than outside, warns top scientist
- ScienceDirect – Assessment of personal exposure to particulate air pollution during commuting in European cities—Recommendations and policy implications
- [PDF] PSU – Review of Urban Bicyclists’ Intake and Uptake of Traffic-Related Air Pollution
- LWW – Traffic-related Air Pollution and Attention in Primary School Children: Short-term Association
Why You Should Not Drive Your Kids To School
Driving kids to school is safer than allowing them to walk or cycle, right? Not when your child is breathing in higher levels of pollution in the backseat!