Faculty of Engineering


Exposure and uptake of vehicle air pollution while commuting

Human exposure to air pollution from motor vehicles is increasingly being linked to adverse health outcomes. It is thought that most people receive a significant proportion of their daily air pollution dose while commuting to work, whether this be walking, cycling, travelling by car or public transport.  This is because commuting journeys inevitably follow high air pollution corridors associated with roadways.

For those travelling by car, the proximity of the vehicle air intake to the exhaust emission of the vehicle in front and limited exchange of air within the vehicle may result in high exposures. For those commuting by bike or walking, the higher levels of physical activity (an individual’s breathing rate in particular) will result in an increase in the amount of pollutant absorbed by the body (Dirks et al, 2009) compared with someone receiving the same exposure but travelling by a more sedentary mode of commuting.

Low cost, portable air quality sensors have recently become available which make it possible to measure individual pollutant exposure in the urban environment in more detail. This study will involve developing a standard methodology for estimating actual levels of population exposure to atmospheric pollutants and uptake in the body based on the method of transport during daily commutes. We will be investigating ways in which driver behaviour can be changed in order to minimise exposure while commuting by car and the extent to which separate cycle lanes are effective in minimising cyclist exposures and uptake. The exposures will also be compared with air quality data collected from a limited number of monitoring sites at fixed locations upon which air quality assessments are generally based.


Key focus areas/issues

The aims of this research are to:

  • determine the extent to which mode of transport affects air pollution exposure and uptake in the body taking into account the different exposure patterns and levels of physical activity.
  • determine the extent to which driver behavior affects air quality inside vehicles.
  • contribute to knowledge on the representativeness of fixed monitoring stations in assessing human exposure to urban air pollution and methodologies for estimating their health impacts.

Key people



Seosamh Costello
Email: s.costello@auckland.ac.nz
Phone: +64 9 373 7599 ext 88164


Related publications

The following publications are from previous relevant research:

Dirks, K.N., Longley, I., Salmond, J., Kingham, S., Fernandes, K. 2009. Blood Carboxyhemoglobin levels as a biomarker for urban air pollution exposure. Paper presented at the International Conference on Southern Hemisphere Meteorology and Oceanography, Melbourne, Melbourne, 9-13 February.

Dirks, K.N., Sturman, A.P., Johns, M.D. 2006. Using health impacts to assess atmospheric carbon monoxide models. Met Apps, 13(1), 83-87.

Salmond, J., Longley, I., Kingham, S., Dirks, K.N., Williams, D., Wagner, J., 2009. Three-dimensional spatio-temporal variability in air quality at road intersections. Paper presented at the Clear Air Society of Australia and New Zealand, Perth, Australia (approach contact above if you would like to access this article).

Williams D.E., Henshaw G., Wells B., Ding G, Wagner J., Wright B, Yung Y.F., Salmond J., 2009. Development of Low-Cost Ozone Measurement Instruments Suitable for Use in an Air Quality Monitoring Network, Chemistry in New Zealand, 73(1), 27-33.

Costello, S.B., Goluchowski, M.T., 2007. Improving Safety at Mobile Road Work Zones through a Study of Driver Reaction to Advance Warning, Road and Transport Research, Vol 16, No 1, 18-29.

Salmond, J.A., Clarke A.G. & Tomlin, A.S., 2006. ‘The Atmosphere’ in Understanding our Environment, Harrison, R. (ed) 4th edition, Royal Society of Chemistry.

Costello, S.B., Goluchowski, M.T., 2006. Improving Safety at Mobile Road Work Zones through a Study of Driver Reaction to Visual Stimuli, Road and Transport Research, Vol 15, No 4, 31-42.

Salmond, J.A. and McKendry, I.G., 2005. Turbulence in the very stable nocturnal boundary layer: Implications for air pollution, Progress in Physical Geography. Vol. 29, No. 2, p171-188.

Costello, S.B., 2003. A Study of the Starting Behaviour of Vehicles at Signalised Intersections’ Traffic Engineering and Control, Vol 44, No 11, 409-412.


This study will focus on exposure to carbon monoxide (CO), a primarily traffic-related pollutant. CO exposure will be measured using portable Langan monitors, while carbon monoxide uptake in the form of carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb) will be modelled using the Coburn, Forster, Kane model.

GPS devices will be used to record routes used by participants.

There are three aspects to this study:

  • assessment of the impact of mode of transport, route and time of day on daily exposure and pollutant uptake patterns
  • assessing the influence of driving behavior on exposure to air pollutants
  • development of a generic model to link fixed air quality monitoring sites to actual exposure in urban environments.

In this research we take advantage of new mobile air pollution technology to investigate exposure and uptake of CO by measuring exposures while commuting the same route but by different modes (car, bus, cycling, etc). COHb levels will be modelled based on the measured CO exposures and activity levels (heart rates).

A high-exposure group (courier drivers) will monitor their CO exposures as they go about their normal daily activities and these measurements will be compared with those recorded at fixed air quality monitoring stations. The impact of driver behaviour on in-vehicle concentrations will also be investigated using vehicles undergoing the same journey. This will incorporate preference for open or closed windows, in-vehicle air recirculation mode and distance to the vehicle in front using an ultrasonic distance sensor.