Colorado State University, City of Fort Collins Team up to Study Impacts of Commute-Time Air Quality on Citizens

Ever wonder how the exhaust fumes breathed in while sitting in traffic impact health? A Colorado State University study aims to find that out by mapping Fort Collins areas with heaviest concentrations of commute-generated pollution and measuring its impact on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of those breathing it in, including cyclists and drivers.

The five-year study will focus on commuters’ exposure to air pollution in Fort Collins.

The study aims to:
– Empower commuters with information they can use to reduce their exposure to air pollution during their daily commutes;
– Investigate if differences in exposure exist between drivers and bicycle commuters; and
– Measure and study immediate effects on the body that may indicate adverse effects of traffic-related air pollution.

“The daily commute, whether by bicycle, car or another mode, is an experience shared by nearly all Americans,” said John Volckens, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences and the research project co-leader. “Motor vehicles emit a complex mixture of toxic chemicals that contribute substantially to air pollution exposure in this country. Although this daily exposure to air pollution is generally considered an ever-present hazard, roadways and areas near roads are hotspots of air pollution. A better understanding of exposure can lead us to ways to reduce exposure during commute times and improve public health.”

As part of the study, CSU will partner with the city and with Amy Stuart, a professor and expert in air quality modeling at the University of South Florida, to map areas with the highest concentrations of air pollution.

“Other than high concentrations of ozone in the summer, the general air quality in the city is fairly good,” Volckens said. “But members of the community can still experience relatively high levels of exposure on or near roadways. Cyclists may be at the greatest risk for exposure, since they tend to breathe more air than drivers and ride in close proximity to traffic.”

About 150 study participants will wear miniature sensors with GPS, pulse monitors and micro accelerometers—which measure changes in movement, to record their whereabouts and activity levels throughout the day. They also will carry small air pollution monitors with them in a backpack. The researchers will then incorporate the data into a digital map of the city to assess exposures.

About 50 of those participants also will be measured for changes in pulmonary and cardiovascular health immediately before and after their drive or bicycle commute. The measures include a small blood sample to assess the release of proteins in the body that measure inflammation, a sample of exhaled breath to examine lung inflammation, and a non-invasive marker of arterial stiffness, which measures vascular health.

“The results will have important regulatory implications as well as implications for communities similar to Fort Collins that have relatively good air quality,” said Jennifer Peel, co-leader of the project and also a professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “This study will gather information that can help communities plan for development with public health and sustainability in mind.”

“We know that people who live and work in Fort Collins are health-oriented and want to have information about the impacts of higher levels of pollution exposure that may occur during the heaviest commute times,” said Bruce Hendee, city of Fort Collins chief sustainability officer. “This study provides them with information to make choices and may also provide the city with information to develop strategies to address air quality during those hours.”

Researchers know that air pollution has serious impacts on health, but very little knowledge exists specifically about exposure and health effects during commutes, when higher levels of air pollution are immediately present than during non-commute times. People who have pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and the very young and very old are especially impacted by air pollution.

Air pollution is estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year in the United States, a rate that ranks as high as some kinds of cancers. Traffic-related air pollution is particularly harmful and research has shown an association with increased risk of heart attacks, atherosclerosis, asthma and even lung development in children.

The study is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The CSU research team plans to recruit study volunteers from the Fort Collins community beginning this summer.