A new study has found motorists and passengers wary of the risks of COVID-19 face a fork in the road when they hop in a vehicle: one direction increases exposure to the virus, the other to toxic air pollution.
The study, conducted at the University of Surrey in the U.K. and published in the journal Environmental International, explored three different ventilation options available to health conscious motorists as they get back on the road of life: windows open; windows closed with air conditioning using fresh air; and windows closed with air conditioning using recycled air.
The team of experts, from Surrey’s Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) used internal sensors to gauge the concentration of pollution particles, how they varied in different settings and evaluate exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) per kilometre for each of the three ventilation options. Carbon dioxide emissions — used as a proxy for COVID-19 — were also measured.
The study found motorists were faced with a dilemma; keeping the windows open while wearing a mask was the best way to stay safe from the virus, but this quickly increased exposure to toxic air pollution particles. Closing the windows and recycling the vehicle’s AC decreased this exposure, but raised the risk of COVID-19 transmission by 28.5 per cent. The best option to decrease the risks from both was to keep the windows closed while having the air conditioning draw fresh air from outside the car.
“It’s vital that the scientific community provides society with the data it needs so we can learn from the painful experience of the past two years,” said Prashant Kumar, lead author of the study, associate dean (international) and founding director of GCARE at the University of Surrey.
If air pollution isn’t a problem where you live or if you are only concerned about the coronavirus, Kumar said the choice is clear. “Our research found that if your priority is to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, wearing a mask and keeping car windows open is the ideal approach.”
A wider implementation of low-cost sensors — similar to those used in this research — can make a big difference in controlling the quality of air in vehicles, the study said, helping to minimize exposure to on-road pollutants and manipulating air patterns to reduce the risk of transmitting respiratory diseases. Researchers said they hope further study will help contribute to a database of different road vehicles and the varying risks of using them for travel in the midst of a pandemic and beyond.
“However, presenting the findings from this in-car study to occupants via an online mobile/web-based application will enable them to start making informed decisions to minimize their exposure to air pollution and reduce the probability of respiratory infections by choosing appropriate ventilation settings,” they said.
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca