Diesel Emissions Aren’t Just Harming the Environment: Professional Drivers in Congested Cities are Most Affected

Diesel Emissions Aren’t Just Harming the Environment: Professional Drivers in Congested Cities are Most Affected

Until recently, not much research had been done on the professional drivers’ occupational health—especially those working in cities with high levels of traffic. One recent study shows taxi drivers in particular experience high exposure levels to black carbon.

Professional drivers like taxi drivers, couriers, truck drivers, waste removal workers, and emergency service workers are at a significant occupational risk thanks to diesel fumes and exposure to black carbon. Recent research presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress on Sept. 29 shows that drivers should take serious measures to protect themselves, especially in busy and congested cities.

The study, although funded by and focused on European cities and drivers in London, is applicable to professional drivers in any congested city. The study was led by King’s College London researchers and funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), and it made the two following conclusions: professional drivers in congested cities are at a high risk due to exposure to black carbon, and taxi drivers experience the highest exposure to black carbon in diesel engine fumes compared to other professional drivers.

Shannon Lim, a research assistant and PhD candidate at King’s College London, UK, presented the research. Lim said,“We know quite a lot about the dangers of exposure to traffic pollution. However, there has been surprisingly little research on levels of professional drivers’ exposure to pollution and its effects on their health. We believe there are around a million people working in jobs like these in the UK alone, so this is a widespread and under-appreciated issue.”

Researchers recruited 140 professional drivers from a range of occupations in central London. The drivers were asked to carry black carbon monitors, which were linked with GPS trackers, for a period of 96 hours. The monitors measured levels of exhaust exposure every minute. Drivers were also asked about the type of vehicle they drive, their working hours, and whether they drive with their windows or air vents open.

The results were indeed notable: on average, professional drivers were exposed to 4.1 micrograms of black carbon per cubic meter of air (mg/m3) while driving. This is four times higher than their exposure at home (1.1mg/m3). Researchers note the levels recorded at home are similar to levels experienced by office workers at their desks.

Not only do professional drivers experience high exposure to black carbon, but the study showed they are exposed to black carbon in high spikes of over 100mg/m3and lasting as long as half an hour. Plus, driver exposure to these pollutants in congested cities and busy roadsides in London far exceeds levels away from the roadside. The research showed that pollution levels at busy London roadsides were 3.1mg/m3on average and, away from the roadside, the average level was 0.9mg/m3.

And, if these numbers are startling enough, some drivers are suffering worse than others. The study showed that taxi drivers had the highest levels of exposure with a whopping average of 6.5mg/m3. Emergency service workers had the lowest levels of exposure on average(2.8mg/m3).

All this is to say: people who drive for a living are at a serious risk for cancer and other problems, and the car or vehicle is hardly a form of protection. Diesel fumes can contain up to 10 times the amount of cancer-causing, soot particles than petrol exhaust fumes. And organizations have already been trying to do something about this—the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s No Time to Lose campaign is trying to tackle occupational cancer with a focus on diesel engine exhaust fumes.

Lim said: “Our study suggests that professional drivers are exposed to high levels of traffic pollution while at work. Because these levels are higher than those we find at the roadside, this suggests that being inside a vehicle doesn’t necessarily offer any protection, in fact the opposite may be true: that air pollution can get trapped inside the vehicle for extended periods of time.”

While these findings are alarming, the study suggests there are steps drivers can take to better protect themselves from pollution. For one, keeping windows closed while working could more than half the level of black carbon for professional workers. Other aspects that could affect and lower exposure levels could be the type of vehicle and choice of route.

One London taxi driver has not only been noted the city’s toxic air quality, but he wants to really do something about it. Mike Hedges, 59, worked as a London taxi driver for 30 years driving mostly a diesel taxi. For the last 18 months, he has driven an electric taxi, and he just completed a MSc. Master’s in Global Air Pollution and Health at King’s College and is currently studying for a PhD at the MRC Centre for Environment and Health jointly at King and Imperial Colleges.

An IOSH article recounts Mike’s experience. He said: “As a London taxi driver driving in the most polluted streets in London I have always wanted to improve the air quality in London. I became involved in helping successive London Mayor's develop their air quality strategies for London's taxis and engaging with taxi drivers in helping them understand their own personal air pollution exposures through Unite, my trade union.

Through research funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, I worked with taxi drivers to facilitate them carrying personal monitors to record their personal exposure, showing them the realities of the air they are breathing every day.

“Although the air pollution hasn't had any impact on my health, many of my colleagues have been affected and I think tackling London's air quality should be a priority to protect taxi drivers, who are the most exposed group of occupational drivers.”

While this recent study is definitely a step to enlighten the public about the negative effects of pollution on professional drivers, extensive research is still needed. The researchers will continue to study the data they have gathered, and they plan to investigate possible ways to protect drivers, such as air filters.“This is vital to help employers, occupational safety and health professionals and individual workers reduce exposure and minimize work-related health risks,” said Lim.

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