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Along the Road

Along the Road

A number of recent studies suggest that people living near large roadways may face increased health risks.  If that’s not enough to convince you to leave the car at home and ride a bike or get a bus pass, here's another statistic: exposure to near-roadway pollution may increase a person’s chances of developing a wide range of health problems, including asthma, hypertension, leukemia, lung cancer, and perhaps even premature mortality.

Measuring the concentration of vehicle exhaust is not a simple task. Exhaust varies by vehicle type (car vs. truck), model year, speed, maintenance condition, and even by the number of miles on a car. Environmental aspects, such as humidity, wind direction, and sunlight add even more complications to the scenario. Imagine a highway bustling with a wide variety of vehicles and operating conditions, and then you can only begin to understand the complexity of the issue.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were up for the challenge. A team of researchers from the Office of Research and Development (ORD) set up a near-roadway pollution study along Interstate 440 in Raleigh, North Carolina. "We decided that it was time to explore the issue of how automobile and diesel commercial traffic contributions affect the urban environment," explains Dan Costa, National Director for Air at ORD’s Research Triangle Park, North Carolina campus.

The EPA team, led by ORD researchers Rich Baldauf, Eben Thoma and Jason Weinstein, used a number of novel techniques, including "real-time" measuring systems, which measure the level of pollution present in the air at an exact time. The results from this pilot study will help researchers develop effective measurements that are necessary in order to understand the quantity and mixture of pollutants present in the air surrounding major highways, changes that occur after the pollution is transported away from the highway, how differences in the landscape plays a role, and how residents living nearby are affected by near-roadway pollution.

Interstate 440 is not the end of the road for EPA researchers. They plan to build on their pilot study by setting up other near-roadway pollution studies in Las Vegas, Detroit and other cities across the United States. Their findings will help environmental policymakers evaluate and update existing motor vehicle regulations and determine what must be done in the future to protect human health.

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