September 28, 2015

To my knowledge, Idling in cars is uniquely American. When I have been abroad, whether I was in Europe or South America, I cannot remember a person sitting in a car for extended periods of time idling and waiting. Climate comfort is not a priority abroad.

We are a country of school dropoff lines and sports drop offs only to wait. Compared to the rest of the world, we have very cheap gasoline and this allows us to idle without worry of cost concerns. We can then maintain a desired ambient temperature no matter where we are stuck.


What are the issues?

Story: I was at my son's soccer practice the other night. I counted 15 cars (>20%) that sat in the parking lot with their engines running for the better part of an hour. Now, mind you, it was drizzling outside, so I get the desire to sit in one's car. However, I cannot understand why the car needs to run on a 70 degree day. Frankly, idling for an hour even during a 90 degree day makes little rational sense. Is it that hard to find a shaded location to sit and read in the summer or dress appropriately in the winter?

Are we so blind to the health risks of carbon monoxide and particulate matter released from the car's exhaust that we believe it to be reasonable to sit in school carpool line or sports parking lots filling our kid's environment with known air and lung pollutants. If I was a teacher working during school pickup, I would not be happy inhaling a car's exhaust fumes while I care for the driver's children in the elements while he/she sits comfortably in their car. (I know this is a rant - it almost needs to be)

My wife knows all too well my pet peeves. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

Science: From the Environmental Law Institute

Idling vehicles emit many different pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, and other volatile organic compounds. These pollutants can contribute to cancer and other short and long-term health concerns. People with asthma, bronchitis, other respiratory problems or heart disease are most sensitive to the health effects of fine particles contained in vehicle exhaust.

Idling school buses can pollute the air inside and around the bus. Additionally, exhaust from buses and other vehicles on or near school grounds can enter school buildings through air intakes, doors and open windows.

Policies that restrict idling can reduce harmful pollutant exposures and help improve indoor air quality for school children and staff. Restricting idling can also save money and reduce engine damage.

According to Dr. William Vizuete, professor of Environmental Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill, there is a direct correlation between particular pollutant exposure from automobile exhaust and respiratory illnesses among individuals, specifically children and the elderly. CO, one of the prime emissions in car exhaust, is a molecule that bonds to hemoglobin in human lungs with a higher affinity than O2, and with prolonged exposure leading to suffocation.

Particulate matter of a small enough size (0.1-0.3 μm) can become lodged in the lungs and respiratory pathways leading to increased occurrences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Children breathe 50% more air per pound of body weight than adults, thus making them particularly susceptible to the dangers of vehicular exhaust. A majority of young children are dropped off and picked up from school by parents or friends, and if any of these vehicles is idling during the drop off or pick up times, these children come into contact with the harmful chemicals spouting out of the exhaust pipe.

Truth: We need to be conscious of this REAL concern for our children, teachers and friends that we shun a little extra comfort of the car environment for the safety of these wonderful people.

I realize that I am preaching, however, I could not find another way to get this powerful point across. Sometimes we have to take on the hard issues regardless of the consequence. I take care of hundreds of asthmatic children and would love to give them less medicine any way possible.

As serendipity would have it, I stumbled across this study today on air pollution. Study lead, Dr. Diane Gold publishing this year in JACI, looked at air pollution and the effects of asthma medicines on a child. Her team found that air pollution made the child's airway more hypersensitive despite being on controller medication.

Need I say more. Remove the antecedent pollutant and reduce the disease burden. A noble cause worth fighting for!

Spread this news to your school administration if you have a car pool line. Begin the discussion about changing your child's school's policy if there is not one in place that protects the children. Above all, lead by example and stop idling.

I am apologetic yet unapologetic for my tone in this segment. Appreciate you all for reading!

Dr. M