Breathing highway air increases blood pressure

| Alden Woods
Cars sit in traffic on Highway 520.

Cars sit in traffic on State Route 520. Photo: Oran Viriyincy via Flickr.

New study led by DEOHS researchers finds increase in blood pressure from breathing unfiltered air during rush hour is comparable to the effect of a high-sodium diet

Read the full UW news release

Headshot of Joel Kaufman
DEOHS Professor Joel Kaufman

Breathing unfiltered air from rush-hour traffic significantly increased passengers’ blood pressure, both while in the car and up to 24 hours later, according to new research from the University of Washington.

The study was published Nov. 28 in the Annals of Internal Medicine and led by authors from the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).

“The body has a complex set of systems to try to keep blood pressure to your brain the same all the time. It’s a very complex, tightly regulated system, and it appears that somewhere, in one of those mechanisms, traffic-related air pollution interferes with blood pressure,” said Dr. Joel Kaufman, a UW physician and DEOHS professor who led the study.

Long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution — a complex mixture of exhaust from tailpipes, brake and tire wear, and road dust — has been linked to increased rates of cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung cancer and death.

An earlier experiment by Kaufman’s lab found that exposure to diesel exhaust fumes increased blood pressure in a controlled environment. The roadway traffic study was designed to test that finding in a real-world setting by isolating the effects of traffic-related air pollution.

Researchers drove healthy participants between the ages of 22 and 45 through rush-hour Seattle traffic while monitoring their blood pressure. On two of the drives, unfiltered road air was allowed to enter the car, mirroring how many of us drive.

On the third drive, the car was equipped with high-quality HEPA filters that blocked out 86% of particulate pollution. Participants did not know whether they were on a clean air drive or a roadway air drive.

Breathing unfiltered air resulted in net blood pressure increases of more than 4.50 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) when compared to drives with filtered air. The increase occurred rapidly, peaking about an hour into the drive and holding steady for at least 24 hours. Researchers did not test past the 24-hour mark.

The size of the increase is comparable to the effect of a high-sodium diet.

“We know that modest increases in blood pressure like this, on a population level, are associated with a significant increase in cardiovascular disease,” Kaufman said. “There is a growing understanding that air pollution contributes to heart problems. The idea that roadway air pollution at relatively low levels can affect blood pressure this much is an important piece of the puzzle we’re trying to solve.”

The findings also raise questions about ultrafine particles, an unregulated and little-understood pollutant that has become a source of growing concern among public health experts.

Ultrafine particles are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, much too small to be seen. Traffic-related air pollution contains high concentrations of ultrafine particles. In the study, unfiltered air contained high levels of ultrafine particles, though the overall level of pollution as measured by fine particle concentration (PM 2.5) was relatively low, equivalent to an AQI of 36.

“Ultrafine particles are the pollutant that were most effectively filtered in our experiment – in other words, where the levels are most dramatically high on the road and low in the filtered environment,” Kaufman said. “So, the hint is that ultrafines may be especially important [for blood pressure]. To actually prove that requires further research, but this study provides a very strong clue as to what’s going on.”

Traffic-related air pollution is the main cause of air quality variation from community to community in most US metropolitan areas.

“This study is exciting because it takes the gold-standard design for laboratory studies and applies it in an on-roadway setting, answering an important question about the health effects of real-world exposures," said Michael Young, a former DEOHS postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the new study. 

"Studies on this topic often have a challenging time separating the effects of pollution from other roadway exposures like stress and noise, but with our approach, the only difference between drive days was air pollution concentration,” Young said. “The findings are valuable because they can reproduce situations that millions of people actually experience every day.”

This research was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

Other authors are Karen Jansen, Kristen Cosselman, James Stewart, Timothy Larson, Dr. Coralynn Sack and Sverre Vedal of DEOHS; Timothy Gould of the UW Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Adam Szpiro of the Department of Biostatistics.


Environmental health news delivered to your inbox monthly: