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Breathing Easy In The Cabin

Many new cars rolling off the lines and into the showrooms have been fitted with particulate filters to stop cars emitting quite as many nasties that people can breathe in.  You also frequently find pollen filters on the ventilation/air con systems, meaning that if you drive and suffer from hay fever, you are less likely to have your eyes streaming, forcing you to pull over, if you are stuck behind a trailer loaded with pollen-stuffed garden rubbish

It seems to be one thing that people are thinking about more these days: the air quality and what we’re breathing in.  And there’s no getting away from it: cars and other motorised vehicles are the number 1 producers of carbon monoxide, NOx gases, ozone (fine in the upper atmosphere to keep out the UV but not so good down at ground level) and all the rest of it.  But have you ever stopped to wonder how much of this stuff you’re breathing in when you’re in your car?  After all, when you’re in a car, you’re usually sitting in a queue of traffic, and every single motor vehicle in that traffic (apart from the electric cars) is putting out a lot of air pollution. 

Unfortunately, it seems to be the conclusion of many studies from around the world that riding in a car (either as passenger or driver) is the second-worst way of getting around when it comes to personal exposure to pollution levels (motorbikes cop it the worst).  In case you’re curious, the modes of travel that scored the best were subway (underground railroad), walking, and biking on a cycle track out of the main stream of the traffic (above-ground trains, buses and biking on the road were in the middle).  However, many of these studies found that how you set your car’s air conditioning, windows and the like has an effect on how much yuck you breathe in.

So what do you do if you don’t really want to give up your car?  Apparently, the best way to minimise pollution inside the cabin of your car is to have the air conditioning on (or the climate control) and to have the windows up.  The second best option is to have the windows open.  The worst option is to have the windows closed and the air vents open.  As far as I can tell, the research on air pollution inside car cabins didn’t look at convertible vehicles or vehicles with sunroofs – they tend to stick with “typical” cars and use things like Toyota Corolla sedans.  Common sense would suggest that opening the hood of a convertible would improve conditions and make riding in a car more like riding a bike on-road, at least pollution-wise (now, there’s a good reason, if you needed one, for buying a convertible!), and that opening the sunroof as well as the windows, assuming that it’s not raining, would do you good. 

Apart from using the air conditioning and opening the windows, what’s a driver to do?

  • Switch to an electric car, as these don’t produce as many nasties when going slowly.  The fewer vehicles there are producing noxious gases on the roads, the better off we’ll all be.  Also, many of the gases that get into a car’s interior are produced by that car.
  • Make sure your car is well serviced.  Cars that have engine problems or that have been neglected tend to pump a bit more awful stuff into the cabin.
  • Go for diesel.  Modern diesel engines are fitted with those particulate filters to reduce the amount of ick getting into the air.

Of course, if you’ve been smoking in the car, your personal exposure to air pollution will be much higher, and a lot of that smoke will linger in the car to be breathed in later.  You’ve heard it before: QUIT SMOKING.  Even if you take the subway to work.