Tuesday, 26 March 2019 06:58

The hidden dangers of driving in dust storms

Written by TR Ganesh

With increased concentrations of quartz, soot and germs within cars, commuters should be aware of the dangers of unclean air within their cars explains TR Ganesh, General Manager, Blueair Middle East.


Whether it’s commuting to work and back, dropping kids off on the school run, or simply doing the grocery chores, people in the UAE are spending more time on the road than ever before. Globally, we spend 10 hours a week travelling inside vehicles, and in Dubai, nearly two of those hours is spent in traffic jams each week.

Beyond the frustrations of tailgaters, lane breakers and badly-behaved drivers, however, is a hidden but more dangerous problem: air pollution. Not only does vehicular air affect commuters’ health, but the dust storms blowing in from the UAE’s deserts bring an additional host of particulate impurities.

While the largest particles are filtered out, those under 10 microns in width easily get lodged in the lungs, from where they can enter the bloodstream and reach the heart. The WHO describes air pollution as the most dangerous health threat, estimating that it caused nearly 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016, from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, and diabetes. The transport sector is a major source of this health burden through its contribution to elevated fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone, and nitrogen dioxide concentrations.

Compounding the dangers are the fact that the air inside your car may be up to 15 times more polluted than the atmosphere outside, according to researchers from King’s College London – contrary to common belief that the air within their cars is safer than that on the street. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Surrey have found that vehicles stuck in traffic jams contain airborne impurities up to 40 times higher than moving cars. Taken together, that’s a potent health risk for anyone – adult or child – spending hours on the road.

Commuters would do well to consider the breadth and impact of these aerial dangers – and how their risk might be mitigated.

What exactly are these invisible particles? Typically, air within a vehicle is composed of a variety of pollutants. Particulate matter in cars here in the UAE could take the form of ultrafine aromatic hydrocarbons, carbonyls, semi-volatile organic compounds, microplastics and microbes, in other words, soot and germs, according to research from the American University of Sharjah. On dusty days, meanwhile, primary pollutants in the air include quartz and other silica compounds, calcite and gypsum and sea salts. In new cars in particular, there is also the risk of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, which come from off-gassing of the materials and finishes of the vehicle interior, including plastic, polyester and leather.

Inhaling these impurities unleashes them onto our respiratory system, where they can cause havoc in different ways. Coarse particulate matter – with specks of over 10 microns in diameter are associated with nasal and upper respiratory tract issues, while finer flecks reach deep within our bodies to trigger longer-term ailments including cancer, and alarmingly, impaired brain development in children.

Before you shrug away those threats, consider this research from Emission Analytics. As the leading global testing and data specialist for the scientific measurement of real-world emissions, the organisation examined 11 different car models currently being drive on UK roads – with many of the models being sold in the UAE – and found that air-conditioning system in most cars are unable to filter out particulate matter and other impurities. Some makes block out just 1 per cent of all pollutants, while others manage between 35 and 40 per cent. People inside such cars are likely to inhale as many as 13 million particles with each breath. The risks only multiply in a sandstorm-induced traffic jam. WHO data shows that the air in Abu Dhabi has nearly treble the number of ultra-fine particles of less than 2.5 microns than London’s atmosphere. In London, or biking to work could help, in Abu Dhabi that’s not as easily done.

An easy solution would be to supplement your vehicle’s cabin air filtration system with a cabin air purifier. The best products offer high-efficiency cabin air (HECA) – preferably with activated charcoal to filter odours and gaseous pollutants ­– and offer 95 per cent filtration of particle pollutants down to 0.1 micron in size. Supplementing your vehicle’s cabin air filtration system with a cabin air purifier may help reduce your exposure to harmful air pollutants.

Civic-minded citizens could go one step further and press the need for regulation of in-vehicle air filtration and global enforcement to improve their own lives and those of their children. Our health is too important to be taken lightly.