Living Near the Polluting Fastlane

  • Researchers have found that breathing the air near busy streets can actually be markedly worse for your health than the air that's even just 200 yards away from that busy street. (Photo by Karen Kelly)

A lot of people like to wake up with a morning run.

But where you choose to exercise can have a big impact on

your health. Karen Kelly has the story:


A lot of people like to wake up with a morning run. But where you choose to exercise can have a big impact on your health. Karen Kelly has the story:

In downtown neighborhoods like mine, in Ottawa, Canada, most people walk to work.

And there are two ways to get there – take one of the main drags like Elgin Street…

(sound of traffic)

Or, take the foot path along the Rideau Canal – just two blocks away.

(sound of quieter path)

Now, if you’re in a hurry, you might choose the busier, more direct route. But researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario have found if you do that, you’ll be sucking in a lot more pollution.

Brian McCarry is an air quality expert who led the study.

“If you’re back from a major road – typically 200 yards from a major road – then the air pollution is about 10 times less than if you were on that major road.”

Now, it sounds like common sense – you’re near traffic? You’re going to breathe in exhaust.

But McCarry says they were surprised by the difference in pollution between the busy street and a quieter street even one or two blocks away.

“I think what we’re really surprised by is the impacts of cars and trucks along major roads, and how quickly that impact, or the concentrations, disperse. When you are actually driving around seeing this, you go ‘wow, that’s amazing.’”

Now, usually instruments that measure pollution are stuck in one place. What’s different about this study is that they piled their instruments into a van and measured the air quality while they were driving. So they saw the number of particulates surge on the highway – those are tiny particles that come out of our tailpipes – and then quickly drop off when the van goes into a quiet neighborhood.

McCarry says those particulates, along with oxides of nitrogen, are bad for our lungs and our heart, and can be deadly for someone who already has health problems.

“It’s not just the dying, but there are many people who do show up at their doctor’s complaining of not feeling well, of having headaches, shortness of breath, and then there are a number of people who don’t show up at their doctor who just simply don’t go to work because they don’t feel very good during these high ozone events.”

And for those of us driving on highways?

McCarry says the air quality there is horrible. He says keep your car windows closed and use the recirculate button to avoid bringing in more pollution.

The same goes for people who live near these roads: close your windows during rush hour.

I talked to some commuters who live in my neighborhood and asked them if pollution influenced their decisions.

“Even though I live right downtown, what I tend to do is find a route that actually skirts the city completely.”

“If I can avoid main streets, I will go out of my way to do that. It’s not necessarily first and foremost an environment thing but I do appreciate good air quality and I also like the scenery of the canal and the pathways in Ottawa.”

These findings on air pollution have led to some changes.

In Hamilton, Ontario, they passed a no-idling law and plan to build future bike paths away from major roads. Plus, they and Toronto replaced their old street sweepers –
that kicked up toxic dust – with new ones that remove dust completely.

That’s attracted interest from some American cities.

But while there are many changes that cities can make, researcher Brian McCarry says these findings can help all of us make healthier choices.

For the Environment Report, I’m Karen Kelly.

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