The New Frontier for Urban Health

When approaching a large city, you might see a monstrous, brown plume surrounding it. You could take a guess that whatever it is would consequently be considered the opposite of a healthy environment. That would be correct. This is alarming given that the United Nations approximated 82% of North Americans live in urban ecosystems[3]. Fortunately, there have been significant steps taken to reduce the amount of engine exhaust emissions, which has already drastically improved the air quality in most urban areas. Unfortunately, one aspect of air pollution which may be even more detrimental to public health has not received nearly enough attention. City pollution

On average, non-exhaust(NE) emissions from vehicles and roads may contribute up to 50-85% of total emissions that come from vehicles[1], depending on location. The category of NE emissions is broad, containing brake dust, tire breakdown material, road dust and much more [2]. Unlike engine exhaust emissions that come out of the tailpipe, NE emissions have received just a fraction of the awareness, which directly correlates to the amount of research being done on health implications and technology advances.

A notably alarming aspect of NE emissions is the potential damage that could be done to human health. The particulate matter from this source, in contrast to engine exhaust emissions, is very large and often contains heavy metals [1]. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens and/or reactive oxygen species, which are known to cause many other diseases (heart disease, Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, etc.) and inflammation of the lungs [2]. One of the only changes to curb the damage done from NE emissions have been outlawing the use of asbestos [2] which is significant but doesn’t come close to solving the problem.

While it may be overlooked, even living near a freeway can contribute to serious adverse health conditions. Data from 5 randomized double-blind studies were used to show associations between developing cardiovascular disease and living near highways. In a study of 1483 people who lived within 100 meters or 328 feet of a Los Angeles highway, researchers used ultrasound to measure the thickness of the carotid artery every 6 months for 3 years. They found that those who lived within 100 meters of the freeway had accelerated thickening of the artery, double what the other participants had[4].


As time marches on, the population living in urban areas worldwide is projected to reach 66% by 2050[3]. This isn’t all bad. It means that many countries are furthering their development and thus acquiring new technologies. As a result, there will be an inundation of opportunity and better quality of life, but this is accompanied by threats that cannot go unaddressed. In developed regions, moving to a city enhances your ability to reach a substantial amount of people, unlocks many forms of new entertainment, and simply gives you more options for your life. For now, there isn’t much that can be done besides being conscious of the potential risks posed by living near busy streets or highways. We must also stay optimistic, hoping that an increase in research and technology will reduce these NE emissions so that living in an urban environment can be done sustainably and with good health.

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[1] Amato, Fulvio, et al. “Urban Air Quality: The Challenge of Traffic Non-Exhaust Emissions.” Journal of Hazardous Materials, vol. 275, 2014, pp. 31–36., doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2014.04.053.

[2] Grigoratos, Theodoros, and Giorgio Martini. “Brake Wear Particle Emissions: a Review.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 22, no. 4, 2014, pp. 2491–2504., doi:10.1007/s11356-014-3696-8.


[4] 3 Mar 2010: Künzli N, Jerrett M, Garcia-Esteban R, Basagaña X, Beckermann B, et al. (2010) Correction: Ambient Air Pollution and the Progression of Atherosclerosis in Adults. PLOS ONE 5(3): 10.1371/annotation/21f6b02b-e533-46ca-9356-86a0eef8434e. View correction

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