Factors influencing the spatial extent of mobile source air pollution impacts: a meta-analysis

BMC Public Health. 2007 May 22:7:89. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-7-89.


Background: There has been growing interest among exposure assessors, epidemiologists, and policymakers in the concept of "hot spots", or more broadly, the "spatial extent" of impacts from traffic-related air pollutants. This review attempts to quantitatively synthesize findings about the spatial extent under various circumstances.

Methods: We include both the peer-reviewed literature and government reports, and focus on four significant air pollutants: carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter (including both ultrafine particle counts and fine particle mass). From the identified studies, we extracted information about significant factors that would be hypothesized to influence the spatial extent within the study, such as the study type (e.g., monitoring, air dispersion modeling, GIS-based epidemiological studies), focus on concentrations or health risks, pollutant under study, background concentration, emission rate, and meteorological factors, as well as the study's implicit or explicit definition of spatial extent. We supplement this meta-analysis with results from some illustrative atmospheric dispersion modeling.

Results: We found that pollutant characteristics and background concentrations best explained variability in previously published spatial extent estimates, with a modifying influence of local meteorology, once some extreme values based on health risk estimates were removed from the analysis. As hypothesized, inert pollutants with high background concentrations had the largest spatial extent (often demonstrating no significant gradient), and pollutants formed in near-source chemical reactions (e.g., nitrogen dioxide) had a larger spatial extent than pollutants depleted in near-source chemical reactions or removed through coagulation processes (e.g., nitrogen oxide and ultrafine particles). Our illustrative dispersion model illustrated the complex interplay of spatial extent definitions, emission rates, background concentrations, and meteorological conditions on spatial extent estimates even for non-reactive pollutants. Our findings indicate that, provided that a health risk threshold is not imposed, the spatial extent of impact for mobile sources reviewed in this study is on the order of 100-400 m for elemental carbon or particulate matter mass concentration (excluding background concentration), 200-500 m for nitrogen dioxide and 100-300 m for ultrafine particle counts.

Conclusion: First, to allow for meaningful comparisons across studies, it is important to state the definition of spatial extent explicitly, including the comparison method, threshold values, and whether background concentration is included. Second, the observation that the spatial extent is generally within a few hundred meters for highway or city roads demonstrates the need for high resolution modeling near the source. Finally, our findings emphasize that policymakers should be able to develop reasonable estimates of the "zone of influence" of mobile sources, provided that they can clarify the pollutant of concern, the general site characteristics, and the underlying definition of spatial extent that they wish to utilize.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Movements*
  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Air Pollutants / classification
  • Humans
  • Particle Size
  • Particulate Matter / analysis*
  • Particulate Matter / classification
  • Vehicle Emissions / analysis*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Particulate Matter
  • Vehicle Emissions