Is Driving Killing You?

Ryan Kilgallon
Sep 16, 2019 · 3 min read

We all know the importance of avoiding poor air especially in polluted cities but what about the air in the very cars we drive and are driven about in? One would assume that being encapsulated in such a ventilated environment is perfectly fine and healthy but what does the science say?

It has been suggested that on average people spend over 45 minutes in a car each day which amounts to a staggering 293 hours or more per year. If this number is a little abstract then telling you that it is equivalent to over 12 days will surely bring the reality home.

The materials within our vehicle such as fabrics, plastics and wood emit harmful chemicals called volatile organic compounds or VOCs. A recent study from Goethe University found that out of a number of cars examined only a quarter passed indoor air quality standards for public spaces and offices. Levels of particular compounds such as formaldehyde increase immensely when we stop to refuel due its abundance in petroleum products. In addition when temperature and humidity levels rise so too does the emissions of these chemicals within your car.

Carbon dioxide is amongst the most known pollutants and knowledge about how our transport produces copious amounts is abundant, but studies have also found that this greenhouse gas also finds its way into our interiors. This occurs due to external concentrations making its way through the ventilation systems and to our exhalations. Thus if we are only recirculating the cabin air then levels gradually increase over time. It is possible for concentrations to reach amounts that can cause negative cognitive and physiological effects such as fatigue and difficulty in concentrating. However, the study reassures us that for an average length journey with one or even two passengers it is unlikely to reach such a dangerous level.

One additional source of pollution within our vehicles is quite obvious and easily solved; smoking, though surprisingly not just tobacco but also e-cigarettes. A study monitored the air quality in a number of cars whilst smoking occurred and found that in the majority of them, levels of small particulate matter or PM2.5 drastically increased though more so for tobacco products. Nicotine levels also rose when e-cigarets were been vaped yet this was again negligible when compared to tobacco products. Beyond the harm caused to the smoker, the negative effects of second hand smoke are increased manyfold due to the confined nature of a car’s limited interior space. Worse still, even with increased airflow from open windows and air conditioning systems, levels of these small particles which can enter our respiratory system causing inflammation, infection and are even linked to cancer, are greatly increased well above safe levels.

So what can we do to best mitigate these pollutants and create a healthy and clean environment for when we travel? Tesla, for example, as an extra offer a high quality air filtration system that they call their Bio-Weapon Defense Mode. This was put to test whereby the Model X was placed in an encapsulated environment in which the amount of PM2.5 was raised to an incredibly hazardous level. Within two minutes cabin levels returned to safe levels and then soon after were undetectable. It even started cleaning the outside air and concentrations were reduced by 40% in just twelve minutes.

However it is unrealistic for everyone to buy a car such as a Tesla so what can be done? Upgrading the stock air filter in your car’s main filtration system is a first and fairly inexpensive step. For increased filtration and higher tech products there are in-cabin filters such as Atem Car HyperHEPA Plus from the Swiss company IQAir. Their product cleanses the air of sulphur dioxide, PM2.5, VOCs and more. Attention has only just begun to be directed at cabin air quality so more and more products like this will hit the market.

With just a few small additions and changes of habits we can easily create an excellent space in a place were we spend so much of our time.

Sources and References:

  1. https://newsroom.aaa.com/2016/09/americans-spend-average-17600-minutes-driving-year/
  2. Zulauf, N.; Dröge, J.; Klingelhöfer, D.; Braun, M.; Oremek, G.M.; Groneberg, D.A. Indoor Air Pollution in Cars: An Update on Novel Insights. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 2441.
  3. https://www.tesla.com/en_GB/blog/putting-tesla-hepa-filter-and-bioweapon-defense-mode-to-the-test?redirect=no
  4. https://www.iqair.com/intl/personal-air-purifiers/atem-car

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