Unless you’re lucky enough to work from home or live a life of leisure, you’ve got some kind of daily commute. And science has already shown that commuting can make you sick. The average employee has a nearly 26-minute commute, according to the United States Census Bureau, adding up to nearly an hour every day on the road, wreaking havoc on our bodies and the environment. Drivers are often exposed to a number of air pollutants that can cause cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems, and in some cases, even lung cancer, ScienceDaily reports. Thanks to a new study though, researchers have found a way to cut down on the toxicity of your commute and protect your body.
The secret lies in using your car’s air conditioning.
For the study, published in Atmospheric Environment, engineers at the Washington University in St. Louis set out to discover the timing and location of the highest exposure of traffic pollutants, and what drivers could do to reduce their risk. To get results, researchers used portable instruments to measure pollutant levels in the car’s indoor cabin air and the air directly outside the car over a four-month period. Inserting a dash cam into their cars, researchers were able to see where pollutants were coming from—including from behind a bus, congested freeway traffic, stopping at red lights, and driving past construction sites and restaurants. The researchers also tested different methods of ventilation, alternating between driving with their windows open and closed, and with the fan on and off, and with the air conditioning on and off.
At the conclusion of the four-month period, the researchers discovered that in order to reduce your risk of exposure to pollutants you need to turn on your air conditioning. In cases where the A/C was used, the indoor cabin air had 20 to 34 percent fewer pollutants. They also noted that keeping the windows closed offered a protective boost of anywhere from 8 to 44 percent, which will come in handy during cooler months when it doesn’t make sense to run the air conditioning.
It’s important to note that the fan doesn’t offer the same protection as the air conditioning. “The A/C is pulling outside air, running through the same filter with the same ventilation path as the fan. But there’s one difference: When the A/C is operating, you have a cold evaporator that is cooling the air as it passes,” Nathan Reed, researcher told ScienceDaily. “This cold surface attracts the pollutant particles, and they deposit there, as opposed to being diffused into the air you’re breathing.”
Based on the findings, researchers are calling for newer cabin filtration or air cleaning techniques in cars, especially for urban commuters.
“The vehicle cabin can be viewed as a buffer, protecting us from the outside air,” says Anna Leavey, research scientist. “While driving with your air conditioning on and windows closed is the most protective thing that you can do, running the A/C can decrease your fuel economy. That’s why we recommend adopting a dynamic behavior modification approach in which the A/C or closed windows are used when following a highly polluting vehicle, or on the freeway, which tends to be more highly polluted.” Once you’ve left the polluted environment, open your windows to remove any pollutant build-up from your car.