The Effect of Traffic Fumes on your HealthThis month a Royal Society report stated that thousands of people are dying each year because of air pollution, much of this a direct result of traffic fumes.

And this figure is set to increase with a prediction of 2,391 direct deaths and more than 25,000 premature deaths by the year 2020. For although cars have become less polluting in recent years, the number of vehicles on the road has increased – and is set to grow further still.

What’s In Traffic Fumes?

Traffic fumes are a complex mix of bi-products formed by the combustion process of the engine. They contain hundreds of pollutants, the most damaging of which include:

  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Lead
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulphur dioxide
  • Polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Tiny suspended particles (particulates)

The combined effect of these pollutants on the human body is extremely detrimental and includes lung and heart problems, damage to DNA, and the risk of cancer.

Traffic fumes also boost the production of oxygen free radicals which cause tissue damage and contribute to the production of harmful, ground-level ozone which damages the bronchial passages and lungs – and which is rising at a rate of six percent every ten years.


Benzene can affect the healthy development of red blood cells and prolonged exposure could also contribute to loss of bone marrow.


Exposure to lead has been shown to cause anaemia, affect learning and memory and can also have an effect on the nervous system.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide reduces the ability of our red blood cells to carry and release oxygen within the body and so effectively has a ‘suffocating’ effect.


Particulates are tiny particles which suspend in the air and which are then inhaled.

On average, people are breathing in ten micrograms of these particles per cubic meter, but in areas of heavier traffic, such as cities, this may many times more. A report in the medical journal, ‘The Lancet’ has stated that, for every additional ten micrograms of particles in the air, six months can be shaved from a person’s life expectancy. It was extrapolated that for people living in cities, their life could be as much as 18 months shorter than for someone living in an area less polluted from traffic fumes.

Breathing Difficulties

The most direct health effect of traffic fumes is increased difficulty in breathing.

Studies have shown that traffic pollution directly affects the airways, causing irritation, coughing, wheezing, and triggering asthma attacks. It is said to contribute to the creation of some 25,000 new cases of adult bronchitis every year and is directly linked to the increase of asthma.

One study showed that even spending short amounts of time in areas of heavy traffic pollution could be damaging to your health. Researchers showed that a mere 2 hours spent shopping in an inner-city busy thoroughfare impaired lung function when contrasted with people who were not exposed to traffic fumes.

It is also speculated that long term exposure could cause lung cancer.

Coronary Damage

It has long been realised that particulates can do serious damage to air passages and lungs, but it is now believed that our cardio-vascular health is also directly threatened by them.

Particulates and can contribute to hardening of the arteries, activate biochemical pathways which can trigger heart attacks while another form of exhaust chemical, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), can cause abnormal heartbeats, or ‘heart arrhythmia’.

Diesel fumes in particular are dangerous to health. 100 times more particulates are formed from diesel emissions than from petrol.

Brain Damage

Traffic emissions could also be damaging our brains. A study in Mexico showed that children who lived in areas of heavy traffic pollution scored consistently less well than those not exposed to fumes – even after socio-economic factors were taken into consideration.

In animals it has been shown that particles from vehicle exhaust are able to migrate along the olfactory nerve from the nose to the brain, causing inflammation of the brain tissue. Studies on dogs showed significant impairment to the brain tissue with similar effects expected for Alzheimer patients and thus scientists pose the question of whether something similar is happening in humans.

Your Response

Reports as to the effects of traffic fumes on our health make for stark reading. But shocking though it is, the biggest problem we’re up against is ourselves and our assumption that traffic fumes are down to the way everyone else behaves.

The best response you can make to help reduce these fumes which are so poisoning is whenever possible, leave the car at home.