Are busy roads dangerous?

Apart from the obvious increased danger of road traffic accidents, living or spending long periods of time next to a busy road can lead to increased health problems. This is because many air pollutants are produced by road vehicles and so concentrations are higher.

In London, pollution concentrations with a few metres of busy roads are normally 2 or 3 times those at background locations, defined as normally at least 50-100m away from busy roads. The most extreme conditions are found in narrow streets lined with tall buildings, which can trap pollution and lead to more elevated concentrations.

Diesel cars, trucks and buses emit particularly high concentrations of fine soot and large numbers of very toxic substances coat these particles. Toxic substances are also found in the coarse particles formed from brake wear and road surface abrasion and these particles are re-suspended in the air by moving traffic.

There is now strong evidence of a link between traffic-related pollution and a worsening of lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). In addition, research suggests a role for traffic-generated air pollutants in the development of asthma and COPD, particularly in those living close to busy roads. These initial findings may initiate debates about the location of schools and day care facilities in immediate vicinity of major traffic arteries. There is also evidence of a link between traffic-related pollution and heart diseases as well as premature death.

Recent research has also highlighted potential links between traffic related pollution, and road proximity with reduced cognitive performance in children. This evidence is relatively new and is likely to become a major topic in the coming years. It is now much clearer that the impacts of air pollution are felt across the whole life course and are not simply focused on aged vulnerable populations.

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