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Experts find that driving can expose us to harmful air pollution, even inside the car — here's how to protect yourself

If you need a vehicle to get around, there are a couple simple methods to mitigate your risk.

If you need a vehicle to get around, there are a couple simple methods to mitigate your risk.

Photo Credit: iStock

We already know that vehicles are a major contributor of harmful air pollution worldwide. But there's another, lesser-known type of danger…and it's coming from inside the car.

It turns out that the time we spend inside our cars can expose us to several types of toxic air pollution.

What are the sources of in-car air pollution?

There are three primary sources of air pollution inside a car, according to the American Lung Association: the outside air, the car itself, and the passengers.

As you drive, fumes from other vehicles on the road enter the car via windows and air vents. Those fumes contain all sorts of dangerous pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides

Additionally, the materials with which cars are built — plastics, paints, lubricants, fibers, and more — contain several pollutants, carcinogens, and irritant chemicals, including VOCs, benzene, and formaldehyde. 

While the release of these pollutants is typically concentrated in the first few years of a car's life, they continue to be released throughout its use, per the ALA. The presence of leaks and moisture can also cause mold to grow inside a car's HVAC system and interior.

Finally, the products on and around passengers' clothes and belongings can contain several dangerous pollutants. Scented air fresheners, cosmetics, and deodorants release VOCs. Food waste and clutter are sources of bacteria, pests, and mold. And secondhand smoke, including the release from vapes and e-cigarettes, contain hundreds of known carcinogens, according to the ALA. 

Even your breathing over a long period of time in an enclosed space can lead to a buildup of dangerous carbon dioxide.

Why is in-car air pollution concerning?

All the listed sources of air pollution pose significant risks to health, both in the short and long term.

The VOCs and other nitric and carbon-based compounds that are commonly found inside cars have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular issues, respiratory issues, lung cancer, and premature death, the ALA and Medical News Today have reported.

Mold inside a car's HVAC system and interior can trigger allergic reactions and asthma. One recent study even demonstrated that inhaling dangerous air pollutants can lead to spikes in blood pressure.

"It was stunning how quickly this led to a rise in blood pressure and that it persisted for so long," said Dr. John Higgins,of UTHealth Houston, according to MedicalNewsToday.

Ways to minimize your exposure

There are a couple of simple methods to mitigate your risk of in-car air pollution, as detailed by the Clean Air Partnership. Keeping your car clean and free of dust is one of the best tips, as is making sure your air filters are always up to date. Trying to plan less-trafficked routes and drive during times of day when traffic is lower will lessen your exposure to exhaust-related air pollutants.

Of course, staying off busy highways and opting for a bike or to walk instead whenever possible is also effective. But if you need a vehicle to get around, switching to an electric one is an excellent way to lessen your own pollution contributions and keep yourself — and others — safer on the road.

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