Take a look at your car for a moment. How much of an impact does it have on your health? First thoughts might point to sedentary behaviour. Should you get on your bike or walk? The more we propel ourselves to where we want to go, the better our fitness, and thus our health.
But hold on a minute. Now take a look at your neighbour’s car. What effect might that have? First you have to get out of its way, and then you have to avoid breathing in its fumes. Otherwise you could be in trouble.
The World Bank calculates that transport systems cause more deaths than HIV, malaria or TB: 1.3 million from road crashes alone. Pollution from transport is a major contributor to poor air quality, which kills even more. In fact, all told, transport systems contribute risk to 6 of the top 10 causes of death.
Whilst road safety has been improved in developed countries, the trends for air pollution are bleak. In Europe alone, the death toll from breathing air pollution is estimated to be around 400,000 per annum. And if, for some reason, you worry so much about the dangers around you and choose to stay safely indoors, then be warned that the World Health Organization calculate 4.3 million deaths a year are caused by household pollution.
Looking at your car and your neighbour’s car traditionally carries feelings of pride or envy. And irrespective of its age or its marque, cars provide us with major personal benefits. But the downsides in a society of car owners and other forms of road transport are substantial.
We don’t usually describe someone as having died of exhaust fumes. It might be cancer or a respiratory disease. But perhaps we should. If we take our health seriously, we cannot avoid confronting the less palatable truths. The unseen needs to be revealed.