Clean Air

What You Breathe During Your Commute


The amount of time we spend traveling to work is increasing. In 1980, The United States Census Bureau found that the average worker aged 16 years or older spent an average of 21.7 minutes traveling to work. By 1990, this number grew marginally to 22.4 minutes. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau found that the average commute time had reached 25.1 minutes, which extrapolates to around 100 hours of travel time just to get to work each year. While a larger share of commuters spend fewer than 25 minutes commuting to work, nearly 47 million, or about 40% of people spend more than 25 minutes on their commute. Note that none of these numbers reflect travel time on the drive home.

If you commute to work in a light-duty vehicle, then you are joining around 119 million of your fellow humans, or 86.1% of all people who travel by car, truck or van. The remaining 13.9% of people take public transportation, travel by bicycle, walk, or find other means to get to work.

Regardless of how you reach work, as you travel along roadways, you breathe the byproduct of burnt fossil fuels we use to power the engines in our vehicles. Exposure to these emissions has been shown to cause airway inflammation and a decrease in lung function.

What comes out of the car’s exhaust tip?

According to the Automobile Association, there are at least 7 emissions emitted from the exhaust of vehicles that can have a major effect on respiratory health.

  • Carbon Monoxide – Tasteless and odorless, this gas interferes with oxygenation of blood.
  • Nitrogen Oxides – Affects the health of the respiratory system, can trigger asthma and reduce lung function.
  • Sulfur Dioxide – Contributes to ozone and particulate matter that can affect respiratory health.
  • Hydrocarbons – Can reduce lung function and increase asthma-related symptoms.
  • Benzene – A toxin and carcinogen, long term exposure is linked with leukemia.
  • Particulate matter / soot – May contribute to breathing difficulties and the risk of developing a cardiovascular disease.

But these emissions aren’t the only concern during your daily commute. In the summertime, a combination of sunlight and heat increases ground level ozone, which can add additional risk to your commute.

How Temperature Increases The Risk of Exposure to Ozone

According to The European Environment Agency (EEA), ground level ozone is “not directly emitted into the atmosphere, but is formed from chemical reactions following the release of various ‘precursor pollutants’ from a wide variety of sources,  for example: fossil fuel combustion, road transport, refineries, solvents, vegetation, landfills, wastewater, livestock and forest fires.” They continue, “the reactions that create ozone are catalyzed by heat and sunlight – so it is a particular problem in the summer months.”

Ground level ozone can also increase asthma, reduce lung function, and cause lung disease. Additionally, mortality rates can increase as a result of ozone exposure. This is problematic in urban environments where traffic volume can lead to cars stopping or driving slowly on congested roadways. During hot summer days where concrete or dark asphalt is exposed to direct sunlight, drivers are being exposed greater levels of potentially dangerous substances.

If you live near an urban environment, you might already be familiar with air quality warnings.

Know The Health Risk With The Air Quality Index

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is designed to help individuals understand the potential health effects of breathing air in a particular area. The AQI measures ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide on a scale of zero to 500. A value of 100 represents the acceptable air quality standard set by the EPA to protect public health. Any value greater than 100 is considered unhealthy depending on your sensitivity.


For reports on air quality, visit to see the forecast in your area. You can also download an Air Quality Index app on your smartphone to get real-time reports. Use this information to plan your day and avoid exposure to pollution.

How To Improve The Environment For Everyone

The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for acceptable levels of emissions, with local governments allowed to enact waivers that set stricter standards. The EPA enacts these standards with consideration for technical feasibility and cost. Vehicle manufacturers typically meet these standards through vehicle design and powertrain management software.

Despite stricter standards and more control over emissions, the automobile remains a major contributor to pollution, and there is little signs of stopping. In 2011, Ward’s reported that the number of vehicles in operation worldwide surpassed 1 billion units. Because a single country cannot legally impose pollution regulations on another country, cars sold in some regions might not adhere to stricter standards found in the U.S. and Europe.

But all may not be lost. As we mention in our previous blog, What Does “Going Green” Mean?, environmentalism shouldn’t just be about making a big impact with a broad stroke of a brush; rather, making minor changes in existing habits, while also influencing those around you by educating them with your experiences, can make a difference.

Check out the blog if you are interested in learning how you can contribute to the global community with small changes to your personal lifestyle. Also, you will learn a few tips on how to reduce fuel consumption while behind the wheel of the car, which will reduce your vehicle emissions.

Do you have any suggestions for staying healthy during your commute? If so, let us know in the comments below.

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