WSJ: Studies show serious health effects of sitting in traffic

A fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal: Why Traffic Jams Are Bad For You

There are many strong arguments for trying to get Americans to drive less and to take public transit more often, to choose alternate methods of transportation, and to live in closer proximity to their workplaces.

But here’s another argument that I had not considered. From the piece:

New public-health studies and laboratory experiments suggest that, at every stage of life, traffic fumes exact a measurable toll on mental capacity, intelligence and emotional stability. “There are more and more scientists trying to find whether and why exposure to traffic exhaust can damage the human brain,” says medical epidemiologist Jiu-Chiuan Chen at the University of Southern California who is analyzing the effects of traffic pollution on the brain health of 7,500 women in 22 states. “The human data are very new.”

So far, the evidence is largely circumstantial but worrisome, researchers say. And no one is certain yet of the consequences for brain biology or behavior.

Breathing exhaust fumes is detrimental to people of all ages:

Recent studies show that breathing street-level fumes for just 30 minutes can intensify electrical activity in brain regions responsible for behavior, personality and decision-making, changes that are suggestive of stress, scientists in the Netherlands recently discovered. Breathing normal city air with high levels of traffic exhaust for 90 days can change the way that genes turn on or off among the elderly; it can also leave a molecular mark on the genome of a newborn for life, separate research teams at Columbia University and Harvard University reported this year.

Children in areas affected by high levels of emissions, on average, scored more poorly on intelligence tests and were more prone to depression, anxiety and attention problems than children growing up in cleaner air, separate research teams in New York, Boston, Beijing, and Krakow, Poland, found.

Let’s hope researchers continue this work. If these problems turn out to be as serious as they sound, then we have yet another reason to find ways to minimize traffic congestion and reduce the amount of time drivers are at a stop.