Taxi drivers most at risk from air pollution

Taxi drivers are exposed to higher levels of harmful air pollution than other professional drivers, new research shows.

Researchers from King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London measured the pollution levels experienced by 141 drivers from different sectors, including taxi drivers, couriers, truck drivers, waste removal and emergency services workers.

The drivers carried black carbon monitors for 96 hours, and were asked about the type of vehicle they drive, their working hours and whether they drive with their windows down or air vents open.

Black carbon is the sooty black material emitted predominantly from diesel engines in the urban environment.

On average, professional drivers were exposed to 4.1 micrograms of black carbon per cubic metre of air (4.1 µg/m³) when driving — four times higher than their exposure at home and a third higher than measurements recorded at one of the busiest roads in London (3.1 µg/m³).

According to lead researcher and King’s PhD candidate Shanon Lim, previous studies have found significant respiratory health effects, such as asthma and impaired lung function, with changes in black carbon exposure for values as small as 1 µg/m³.

A man talking to a taxi driver through the taxi's window

Taxi drivers were exposed to the highest levels of pollution (6.5 µg/m³) — twice the level of the least-exposed drivers, those in emergency services vehicles. This is largely due to the fact that taxi drivers spend the majority of their working day dropping off and picking up passengers in congested areas, the researchers noted.

“Our study suggests that professional drivers are exposed to high levels of traffic pollution while at work,” Lim said. “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.”

The results also showed, however, that closing the windows and setting the ventilation system to recirculate air when driving halved the levels of black carbon exposure.

Changing routes to avoid tunnels and using in-vehicle cabin pollution filters can also reduce exposure to emissions.

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