Burning gasoline or diesel fuel creates a slew of pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog, other VOCs that are linked to cancer, and small particulates that penetrate deep into the lungs.
These problems are particularly serious in the developing world. But even countries with strict pollution controls face sobering statistics. In the United States, for example, more than 58,000 people die prematurely each year because of traffic emissions.
Nearby residents suffer the greatest health consequences. According to a Vancouver study, people who live within 150 metres of a highway or within 50 metres of a major road are 29 per cent more likely to die from coronary heart disease.
The dangers don’t stop there, however. Traffic-related air pollution is also linked to stroke, cancer, asthma and other respiratory problems. Children, infants and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable because their lungs aren’t fully developed. Meanwhile, Spanish researchers found that students in elementary schools located within 500 metres of a major roadway or highway had slower cognitive development.
Nor are the impacts strictly local. On hot, sunny days, NOX and VOCs can undergo a series of chemical reactions. The result is smog that can blanket the entire region in pollution or get blown hundreds of kilometres, creating health impacts far from its original source.
Smoggy days lead to thousands of premature deaths, overload emergency rooms and make it dangerous for even healthy people to exercise outdoors. In Ontario, 5,940 people died prematurely because of smog in 2006. In many other countries, the toll is even higher. In Beijing, for example, breathing the smog-filled air creates the same health risks as smoking 40 cigarettes a day.
According to a 2016 World Bank report, air pollution costs $3.55 trillion in premature deaths each year. That figure doesn’t include the costs of pollution-related illness: doctor visits, emergency room admissions, lost wages and more.
Traffic is a major contributor to the problem. An OECD report suggests that road transportation accounts for roughly half of the health costs created by air pollution in member countries. In China, traffic emissions is one of the biggest causes of deaths due to air pollution, second only to industrial coal.
The good news is that reducing pollution saves lives — and money. A 2016 study estimates that each ton of NOX removed in the city of Toronto would create $650,000 in health benefits.
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