Traffic Congestion Costs Lives, Billions of Dollars in Public Health Costs

Published on June 28th, 2011

Maria FotopoulosAs I read a new study, “The Public Health Costs of Congestion/A Health Risk Assessment,” from The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA), I couldn’t help but think of my personal living situation. When we moved to Los Angeles some 20 years ago, the directive from my other half was to find housing in Santa Monica, with the belief that air quality was better nearer the ocean. We ended up relatively close to Santa Monica, for what that’s worth, given that the reality is we’re living in the most populated city in California and the second most populated city in the nation, which is part of one of the most populated metroplex areas in the world. Large populations can have large negative impacts on their environment – certainly true for us in America with our well-known big environmental footprint. While the HCRA quantifies the impacts of living in congestion in a very methodical way, my experiences speak to the impacts on a personal, anecdotal level. The report addresses fine particulate matter vehicle emissions that can be traced to traffic congestion – and L.A. is a very driving-oriented city of course. Living one block off of the busy Wilshire Boulevard corridor that runs from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica with a terminus at the Pacific Ocean, and one and one-half miles from the busiest and most congested U.S. freeway, I think a fair amount of that “fine particulate matter” ends up in our apartment. Having lived in small to mid-size towns in the Midwest and East Coast – and done the housekeeping – I’m familiar with dust. But when I clean our apartment here what comes off most conspicuously from the windows, the bathroom with the most traffic-facing window and other spaces is a nasty, fine black grime – something unlike anything I’d ever seen before moving here. Since living here too, I’ve developed allergies, which at times necessitate taking up to a total of four sprays and powders. The allergies are very easily triggered, most notably when I drive on the freeways. What the HCRA study does is quantify for the first time the public health implication of increasing traffic congestion in the country. In other words, it backs up what we probably all understand at an intuitive level and what many of us experience health wise. The researchers looked at 83 of the largest urban areas in the U.S. and estimated the traffic congestion-related fine particulate matter for 2000 to 2030, its contribution to premature deaths and total social costs. Their model factored in projections on population growth and no additional transportation infrastructure. Traffic congestion in some of the areas over this time period is expected to rise from 30 to 54 percent. Findings indicated thousands of deaths and costs totaling tens of billions of dollars annually. Not surprisingly, we Californians experience high health impacts – the L.A./Long Beach/Santa Ana area pays the highest health toll in the country, rather tarnishing our reputation as a fun-in-the-sun-leisure-living beach spot. In addition to being impacted by the fine particulate matter, Californians also have high exposure to sulfur dioxide, a secondary formation produced by fine particulate matter. Negative health impacts include asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Resultant premature deaths (estimated at 4,000 in 2000, 3,000 in 2005 and, “absent remedial actions,” 1,900 in 2030, with numbers rising again thereafter) come primarily from heart attacks and strokes. Replacement of more polluting vehicles with newer, lower emission vehicles is credited with the decreasing numbers of deaths, one bit of positive news out of the study. Just think how a sustainable population could further bring down those numbers and have an overall positive effect on our health. For just an overview of the report, read the press release.

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