Feel like your commute is killing you? It’s not just the side effects of being sedentary for so long, or the mental fatigue of slogging through traffic. A new study published in Environment International found California commuters are likely inhaling alarmingly high amounts of chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer and birth defects. And here’s the kicker: It’s not from air pollution or exhaust.
Researchers gave 90 study participants silicone bracelets to wear for five days. The molecular structure of silicone is ideal for capturing airborne contaminants. The goal was to test peoples’ exposure to chemicals typically found in vehicle interiors. Participants’ commute times ranged from 15 minutes to over two hours.
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Ultimately, researchers found benzene and formaldehyde in unsustainably high levels within vehicle interiors. Benzene is used in the production of synthetic fibers in automobile manufacturing, while formaldehyde is a binder in plastics. Both chemicals are carcinogens (known for causing cancer), and benzene carries additional risks for reproductive and developmental toxicity.
“These chemicals are very volatile, moving easily from plastics and textiles to the air that you breathe,” explains study co-author David Volz, UCR professor of environmental toxicology.
One concern raised by the study was that participants with the longest commutes had the greatest amount of chemical exposure.
“Of course, there is a range of exposure that depends on how long you’re in the car, and how much of the compounds your car is emitting,” says Aalekhya Reddam, lead study author.
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For Volz, the results of the study were not expected—but highly alarming.
“I went into this rather skeptical because I didn’t think we’d pick up a significant concentration in that short a time frame, let alone pick up an association with commute time. We did both, which was really surprising.”
As for what can be done to address the problem, Reddam suggests commuters dilute the concentration of airborne chemicals by opening windows, while Volz says car manufacturers need to find alternatives to dangerous chemicals.
In the long run, Volz says that the study provokes further questions on the effects of airborne contaminants and a more dangerous form of car sickness.
“If we picked up this relationship in five days, what does that mean for chronic, long-term exposure, for people who commute most weeks out of the year, year over year for decades?”