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Traffic jams: The silent killer

Traffic jam during APEC 2015. Photo by Manila Times.
Traffic jam during APEC 2015. Photo by Manila Times.


A man was gasping for air inside a public utility van packed with 20 passengers stuck in a traffic on Park Avenue Extension in Pasay City.

It was 9:45 p.m., November 18, 2015. Twenty-one world leaders were in Manila for the 23rd summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Traffic had been on a standstill for hours. Thousands of commuters were stranded on the road. Many decided to walk home.

The man in the van, later identified as Elmer Agaray, 57, of Paliparan III, Dasmariñas City, and Cavite was having a cardiac arrest.

Responding village watchman Abubacar Sultan, 29, together with two bystanders, rushed Agaray  in a patrolling tricycle to  the nearest hospital, the San Juan de Dios Hospital along Roxas Boulevard, also in Pasay City.

From where the van was stuck in traffic to San Juan de Dios hospital was about one kilometer and would have taken only four minutes travel time. The Pasay City police said Aragay arrived at the hospital after almost an hour, dead. Attending physician, Dr. Reginaldo Panopio, said Agaray died of cardio respiratory arrest. He, however, added that Aragay could have been saved had he been attended to much earlier.

Aragay’s case belied the statement of Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya that the much-complained – about Metro Manila traffic “is not fatal.”

What happened to Aragay is an extreme case. But studies reveal that long hours on the road put a lot of pressure on a person’s health.

Data from Numbeo, the largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide, puts Manila fifth city in  the world with worst traffic condition this year with 309.37 traffic index. In the top four are Kolkata,India; Mumbai,  India; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Nairobi, Kenya .

Traffic Index is a composite index of time consumed in traffic due to job commute, estimation of time consumption dissatisfaction, CO2 consumption estimation in traffic and overall inefficiencies in the traffic system.

Killer traffic fumes

Manila is also fifth in carbon dioxide (CO2) Emission Index , an estimation of CO2 consumption due to traffic time, according to Numbeo.

Livestrong, a health website, says at normal levels, CO2’s presence has no measurable adverse effects on the body, but if your breathing is compromised or you are exposed to large amounts of this gas, you can experience a wide range of side effects, some of which include permanent injury and death.

Data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB) reveals worsening air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR).

A 2015 report stated that the air pollutant concentration in NCR has already reached 130 micrograms per normal cubic meter (µg/Ncm) in terms of total suspended particulates (TSP) from 106 µg/Ncm in 2014. Maximum safe level of air pollutant concentration is only at 90 µg/Ncm.

Air pollution finds its way deep into the hearts and lungs, slowly killing 4.3 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization.

In the Philippines, DENR said 12 percent of premature deaths in Metro Manila is caused by poor air quality, especially particulate matter.

“Air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone. Whether in Manila, Sao Paolo or London, air pollution is a problem from exhaust fumes from cars, domestic combustion or factory smoke,” WHO said.

Inhalation and ingestion of these pollutants can cause various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and stroke.

“Exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond the control of individuals and requires action by public authorities at the national, regional and even international levels,” WHO added.

Commuting is stressful

People exposed to the daily hassles of hot traffic hell easily get stressed. This is another aspect that develops health problems such as heart disease, asthma, obesity, aging, gastrointestinal problems, among many others.

Dealing with long queues of passengers, competing for a spot in the vehicle and waiting for the traffic to move greatly trigger the stress.

A cross-sectional study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2012 revealed that the farther people commute, the greater the metabolic and cardiovascular risks are.

A survey among 4,297 adults who had a comprehensive medical examination between 2000 and 2007 showed that those who commute longer have less physical activity, thus they develop higher blood pressure and body mass index.

Along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or EDSA, data from the Metro Manila Development Authority shows about  350.000  people  use  the  EDSA  roadway  everyday  (156.000  vehicles,  with  a  density  of  565  vehicles/kilometer) according to a 2013 study by Yves Boquet for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission For Asia and the Pacific.

Former MMDA chairman Francis Tolentino said in an interview the average speed a motorist can travel along the 23.8 kilometer highway is 26 to 27 kph.

It’s not unusual for traffic in Metro Manila to stand still for hours turning the roads into huge parking lots. A 20- minute ride from Quezon City to Manila could take more than an hour.

Sitting is the new smoking

Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, coined the term “sitting is the new smoking.”

He noted that long periods of sitting are more dangerous than smoking, “which kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting,” Lavine told Los Angeles Times.

Dr. John Juliard Go, World Health Organization’s (WHO) national professional officer for road safety and non-communicable diseases, said,  “[There’s] a growing number of studies that show that prolonged sitting – whether travelling by car, train or bus, at school or work, and watching television – may be associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality and cardiovascular diseases, and increased risk of diabetes.”

A 2010 study in American Journal of Epidemiology  found people, regardless of gender, who sat more than six hours a day died earlier than those who have sitting time of three hours a day or less.

The researchers surveyed 123,216 individuals – 53,440 men and 69,776 women – who were healthy at the start of the study and over the course of the 14-year follow-up, from 1993 to 2006.

Researchers saw a higher rate of cardiovascular disease mortality among those who sit longer.

(This story, which appeared in The Manila Times was produced under the Bloomberg Initiative Global Road Safety Media Fellowship implemented by the World Health Organization, Department of Transportation and Communications and VERA Files. #SafeRoadsPH )