Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Stuck in traffic

As you sit in the rush hour queues, pity the poor guy or girl directing the traffic, and imagine the fumes they are breathing in. In Brazil, with rapidly expanding car ownership, but not necessarily expanding road space, this is an increasing problem.

A recent study* in the city of Santo Andre, part of the metropolitan region of Sao Paulo, focused on traffic controllers. The study focused on male, non smoking, traffic controllers who had been exposed for over 3 years. As the authors note, one criticism of the study is that it might actually underestimate health concerns, as unhealthy controllers were excluded from the test group to achieve homogeneity. Thus the subjects might be constitutively more able to adapt to air pollution, or just have healthier working practices.

The study concentrated on particles in the air (from dust, car exhaust etc) and ozone. The level of particulate matter has fallen in recent years, below the official limits of 50 and 25 ug/m3 for PM10 and PM2.5 respectively (PM 10 and 2.5 are different particle sizes), but that is still considered hazardous by many observers. Road dust accounts for about 30% of air pollution and is mainly composed of PM 10 particles, so the authors concentrated on this size in particular. Furthermore ozone levels are increasing, especially at times of high temperatures and low humidity. High ozone has been associated with cardiovascular disease.

They found that both PM10 particulates and ozone were associated with increased blood pressure, but in different ways. PM10 pollution caused a blood pressure rise almost immediately, which still remained 4 hours later, whilst the effect of ozone delayed for 2 hours of exposure, but was still apparent 5 hours later.

So, the traffic controllers are suffering measurable cardiovascular effects every day, continuing even when the pollution is removed, and in quite a stressful job. It might not end there. The so called "interior diesel" used in some cities such as Santo Andre has a lot more sulphur than the diesel distributed in the main cities (1,200 vs 500 ppm), which has been shown to cause endothelial disfunction, oxidative stress, and probably long term hypertension.

It's a dangerous job, standing in the middle of traffic, in more ways than one.

Sérgio Chiarelli P, Amador Pereira LA, Nascimento Saldiva PH, Ferreira Filho C, Bueno Garcia ML, Ferreira Braga AL, & Conceição Martins L (2011). The association between air pollution and blood pressure in traffic controllers in Santo André, São Paulo, Brazil. Environmental research, 111 (5), 650-5 PMID: 21570068

*P.S. Chiarellietal et al 2011. The association between air pollution and blood pressure in traffic controllers in SantoAndre, Sao Paulo, Brazil Environmental Research 111 650–655

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