Labor Day weekend is a prime time for vacations, which means many people will be travelling by car in the coming days. While everyone loves a good road trip, pollution near highways can have serious health impacts, both immediately and in the long term.

While breathing air pollution from motor vehicles is unhealthy for everyone, the people who live and work near highways and traffic are at much greater risk. Whether you live near a highway or are taking a road trip, it's important to be aware of the health risks of breathing highway air pollution, and take steps to limit your exposure.

To protect your health, here are six things you should know:

  1. Tailpipes can emit significant air pollutants. Burning gasoline and diesel fuel releases particulate matternitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as carbon dioxide, into the air. VOCs can react with nitrogen oxides to produce ozone pollution, the nation's most widespread outdoor air pollutant.
  2. Areas near high-traffic roadways often have much higher levels of pollution than the rest of the community. A 2010 review estimated 30 to 45 percent of the people in North American cities live or work near enough to a busy road to experience significantly higher levels of pollution.
  3. Air pollution from motor vehicles can harm health in a range of ways. For example, nitrogen oxides worsen asthma and increase risk of infection. Particulate matter from motor vehicles can also cause asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular harm and even early death. Particulate matter can also lead to lung cancer, and some VOCs are connected to other cancers as well. See the "Terrible 10" air pollution health risks.
  4. Emerging research warns that traffic pollution may cause the onset of new asthma, cause cognitive problems and harm prenatal development. While research has linked traffic pollution to new cases of asthma, questions remain about whether one pollutant is the main cause or one of a combination of factors. Research is also examining other long-term health effects of near-road air pollution, including dementia and preterm birth.
  5. You can take steps to limit your exposure to highway pollution. Because your body takes in more air during physical movement, do not exercise near busy highways. Avoid the areas near highways and traffic on bad air quality days when the levels of air pollution are already high. How do you know when the air is unhealthy? Check the Air Quality Index. If you are in a car on the highway, make sure the windows are up and recirculate your air. 
  6. Cleaner fuels and cleaner vehicles help to reduce traffic pollution, but more action is needed to improve the air near highways. Leaders should support strong state and federal clean car regulations to protect public health from motor vehicle pollution. Support programs in your community to reduce idling and to replace older, dirtier school buses, trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles with newer, cleaner models. More electric vehicles can help, too.

 Want to join the fight for healthy air? Tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to support clean air protections and move forward with strong greenhouse gas pollution limits for light-duty vehicles! Sending this message will only take a minute, and your voice will make a difference.

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