90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Traffic Fumes Linked To Higher Rates of Autism, Premature Births

(Michael Loke/Flickr)

Tiny carbon particles commonly found in car and truck exhaust have long been researched for their role in heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illnesses. Now an increasing number of studies are linking vehicle exhaust to other serious health problems.

Studies in New York, Beijing, Boston, and Krakow, Poland show that children in high traffic areas do worse on intelligence tests and have more emotional problems than children who breathe cleaner air.

In a California study, children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a major road were twice as likely to have autism.

A long-term Columbia University study found that the air pregnant women breathed could leave a bio-chemical mark on their babies’ DNA, and babies with the highest pre-natal exposure have higher rates of physical and emotional problems as they grow up.

But Wall Street Journal science correspondent Robert Lee Hotz says that in many cases, the traffic congestion could be addressed easily, and decrease health problems.

For instance, in New Jersey, premature births to women living near highway toll passes decreased almost 11 percent after the introduction of the E-Z Pass system, which reduced congestion and fumes.

Hotz also says that New York City’s Times Square is an example of how small changes can impact pollution levels.

“By simply changing the pattern of streets, reducing the traffic so there were fewer traffic jams, the general air pollution levels there dropped 63 percent,” he told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.


  • Robert Lee Hotz, science correspondent for the Wall Street Journal

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jeff


    I live in Boston and have a Fast Pass.  I’m astounded how few people use them!  I don’t worry about Big Brother.

  • DC Denizen

    The problem is that in a lot of places it’s not easy to change traffic patterns.  Where I live, in Washington DC, many of the major avenues are so congested that cars just sit on large stretches of the avenues for a long period of time.  But nothing is being done to address the congestion.  If you propose anything that will take the cars off the roads or congestion pricing, car drivers (many of them who do not live in the city) cry foul.  Basically, they’d rather sit in stand-still traffic than use an alternative method of getting into the city.  I really hope this type of research will make these people change their minds, especially when they learn that sitting IN the car that is idling is just as bad for you.

  • concerned

    Idling cars especially concern me – this occurs mostly in the winter.   What would be helpful is if towns/cities/ communities would or could ban idling altogether because car experts say it is not necessary to “warm your engine” before driving.

    This includes taxi cars and even police cars to me- others may disagree.

  • suzannem72

    I work in the Longwood Medical Area and the irony of how we are trying to healing people whilst shrouding them in car fumes due to all the congestion in the area has bothered me for some time. I would love to see a study looking at how contaminated the area is as they continue to build more hospital buildings and induce more traffic onto old, narrow streets. 

  • It

    Maybe Jenny McCarthy will talk all those parents who didn’t
    get their kids immunized into keeping their plague carrying offspring at

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

August 25 12 Comments

Pediatricians Group: Delay School Start Times So Teens Can Sleep

Many studies have shown that the average adolescent doesn't get enough sleep, and that can cause physical and mental health issues.

August 25 11 Comments

A Police Officer On Lessons From Ferguson

Jim Bueermann says the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath point to the need for a conversation about policing in the U.S.

August 22 Comment

Legal Battle Could Prevent Opening Of Popular Utah Ski Mountain

The dispute raises the possibility that Park City could be facing a season without an operational mountain.

August 22 8 Comments

Hip Hop Community Responds To Ferguson

Lauryn Hill's song "Black Rage" is one of several released in response to the shooting and protests in Ferguson.