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How Typical Roadside Dirt Can Pose Serious Health Risks to You

While many studies have honed in on the devastating effects of car exhaust, diesel fumes, and their impact on the air surrounding urban, and even rural, areas, few have ventured to look into the composition of roadside dirt, and how it could be affecting Americans' health.

Roadside dirt, which is circulated into the air when cars and trucks pass by, is actually full of non-tailpipe vehicle emissions, such as microscopic metal particles from brake and tire wear, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

traffic pollution

Dirt kicked up from roadways was found to contain metal particles from brake and tire wear, along with fragments of lead weights used to balance tires.

In addition to tiny particles of brakes and tires, road dust was found to contain platinum-group metals from catalytic converters and fragments of the lead weights used to balance tires.

Breathing in Brakes and Tires?

What, then, are the potential health effects of breathing in microscopic particles of car parts like brakes and tires? An increased risk of asthma and lung disease, for starters, and that's just touching the surface, especially for those who live near busy roads.

"We know that metals can be important in toxicity and adverse health," says James Schauer, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison.

The research team gathered much of their data from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, using several methods:

  • They measured pollutants at the entrances and exits of various streets.

  • They vacuumed roadways, circulated the dirt in the lab and collected it on filters, then analyzed the samples.

  • They collected air samples in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Wisconsin and Denver, Colorado to compare metal concentrations in the air with those found on roadways.

  • They identified non-tailpipe auto emissions by testing vehicles in a sealed room on a California Air Resources Board running-loss-shed dynamometer.

  • They determined what fraction of the metals dissolved in a synthetic fluid similar to human lung fluid.

Roadside Dirt and Your Health

Part of the major reason why the particles in roadside dirt may be harmful is their ability to dissolve in liquid, and the concern that many of the particles are metals.

"A high percentage of the metals that are in these particles actually are liquid-soluble or soluble in this surrogate lung fluid, which again could be important to the health community to begin to understand what's important," says Schauer. "Our data would suggest that the reason we see adverse health effects is because of all of these metals that are present in these materials -- which makes it different from rural dirt."

"The broader picture of this is that these metals need to be thought of in the context of adverse health effects from roadways," he says.

How to Protect Yourself From Roadside Dirt and Air Pollution

traffic pollution

Air pollution is typically highest during the mid-day and afternoon, so staying away from highways and other heavily trafficked areas during these times, particularly when ozone levels are high, may help reduce your risk.

Avoiding any kind of pollution from roadside dirt, diesel fumes and car exhaust is not easy, unless you live in a very isolated, pristine location. Still, about 4 percent of deaths in the United States can be attributed to air pollution, according to the Environmental Science Engineering Program at the Harvard School of Public Health -- and that doesn't include any potential health damage from inhaling roadside dirt.

So for those of us living in the country's cities, suburbs and in between, what are the options? There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of air pollution, both in and outside of your home.

  1. Keep Dirt and Dust Out of Your Home. A few high-quality mats, like the Waterhog Grand Premier Mats, placed strategically around your home (such as in doorways and other highly trafficked areas), will go a long way toward reducing the amount of dirt and dust in your home in the first place. Once inside, that dirt gets circulated into the air and you breathe it in.

  2. Avoid high levels of smog and pollution. These are typically highest during the midday and afternoon. If you're in a high-risk group, don't go outside when ozone levels are high.

  3. Exercise when the air is cleaner. When we exercise (or work strenuously), we draw air more deeply into our lungs, and therefore risk more damage from air pollution. To protect yourself and get the numerous health benefits of exercise, avoid exercising near congested streets and during rush-hour traffic, and try to work out early in the morning or evening instead.

  4. Proper Cleaning. A significant amount of toxins in your indoor air may come from dirt and dust that, through everyday living, end up on almost every surface in your home. Cleaning these surfaces is therefore necessary to reduce the toxins in your air, as, similar to roadside dirt, when you walk around you stir up that dirt and dust into the air you breathe.

    However, if you use ordinary rags or mops, you will simply push dirt from one area to another -- NOT pick it up and eliminate it like you intended. That's why we recommend PerfectClean mops, cloths and dusters to give your home a microscopic level of clean.

  5. Roll up Your Car Windows. If you come across a cloud of dirt along the highway (particularly during construction, etc.), roll up your windows until the air clears. Although you won't be able to keep everything out, it may keep the bulk of the pollution outside of your car, and your lungs.

Recommended Reading

Air Pollution: Check to See What Grade Your County Received, and the Cleanest & Dirtiest Air in America

Exposure to Air Pollution Linked to Genetic Abnormalities


Health Effects Institute: Characterization of Metals Emitted From Motor Vehicles

University of Wisconsin-Madison June 29, 2006

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