Could exercising outweigh negative effects of diesel exhaust emissions?

Could exercising outweigh the negative effects of diesel exhaust emissions?
© iStock/luckyraccoon.

Diesel exhaust emissions contribute a considerable amount to air pollution in Europe, now thanks to CE Delft we can delve into the impacts of diesel emissions in the EU.

The consequences of the health costs of diesel exhaust emissions is still hidden, despite the media coverage of issues such as the Dieselgate scandal. Too few actions have been taken in Europe in order to repair the damage caused by the emission exceedances and the human health impacts of air pollutants is a heavy topic, a topic the public have a right to be aware of.

What do you know about diesel exhaust emissions and the corresponding air pollutants?

Emitted directly or indirectly by diesel road vehicles, such a notion is the typical form of air pollutants which is associated to negative human health effects. However, the health effects of air pollutants are determined by a combination of epidemiological, toxicological and clinical studies.

However, not every European citizen is exposed to the same level of air pollution due to diesel exhaust emissions as others. For example, the level of exposure in urban areas is much greater than in rural areas. Similarly, individuals living close to a road, will on average breath higher concentrations of pollutants than people who do not.

Impact varies with duration and concentration of exposure, so children, elderly, pregnant women and people who already suffer from diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), will be more sensitive to air pollutants and experience more health effects than others.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants is exposure of a few hours to a week or month, while long-term exposure can be of several years. Additionally, studies are emerging showing that children and babies — as they are closer to the ground —inhale higher concentrations of air pollution caused by road transport than adults do, all of which influence the effect of air pollution on an individual.

Can exercising outweigh the negative effects of diesel exhaust emissions?

It has been explored whether negative health effects of air pollution outweigh the positive health effects of exercising, such as cycling or walking next to a road. Some studies have been carried out about this, but no reliable conclusions have been drawn yet.

The WHO advises that the benefits of exercising outweigh the negative effects of air pollution. A 2010 review study showed that this is indeed the case, whereby the benefits highly depends on the amount of traffic directly next to where you exercise: at some locations the positive effects outweigh the negative, and at other it is the other way around.

For most of the diseases/symptoms related to air pollution, the evidence tells that it is exacerbated by the given pollutant rather than that exposure to the air pollution has caused its incidence. The reason for this is that it is very hard to prove that only one environmental factor, in this case diesel exhaust emissions, can be the cause of the incidence of a disease. The short term affects such as cardiovascular effects, respiratory effects and acute mortality are much easier to prove.

Direct link of diesel exhaust emissions to negative health impacts

According to the CE Delft report on the health impacts and costs of diesel emissions in the EU, the following diseases and conditions have been specifically linked to air pollution from diesel exhaust:

  • lung cancer
  • asthma
  • chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • stroke
  • ichaemic heart disease
  • acute respiratory infection
  • dementia (probable)
  • diabetes type 2 (probable).


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