The lives of professional drivers working in congested cities such as London are being put at risk due to exposure to black carbon levels that are, on average, a third higher than would be experienced at a busy roadside, according to research presented in September 2019 at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Madrid.

The study, led by King’s College London researchers and funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), also found that taxi drivers experience the highest exposures to black carbon, an indicator of diesel engine fumes, compared to other professional drivers including couriers, truck drivers, waste removal and emergency service workers.

The study was based on 140 professional drivers working in central London and showed that, on average, professional drivers were exposed to 4.1 micrograms of black carbon per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) while driving.

Professional drivers also experienced extremely high spikes in exposure to black carbon, often exceeding 100 µg/m3 and lasting as long as half an hour.

During the same period of time, researchers found that pollution levels at a busy London roadside (Marylebone Road) were 3.1 µg/m3 on average and, away from the roadside, the average level in London was 0.9 µg/m3.

Taxi drivers had the highest levels of exposure on average (6.5µg/m3).

Diesel fumes can contain up to 10 times the amount of soot particles than are in petrol exhaust fumes, and can cause cancer.

However, the study suggests that professional drivers can take simple steps to protect themselves from pollution. For example, keeping windows closed while working halved the levels of black carbon for professional drivers. The type of vehicle and the choice of route could also lower exposure.

The study on professional drivers was presented by research assistant Mr Shanon Lim who said, “We believe there are around a million people working in jobs like these in the UK alone, so this is a widespread and under-appreciated issue”.

Last reviewed 2 October 2019