Cities are loud and messy, crammed with people suffering from various amounts of stress, and subject to all sorts of bizarre problems, ranging from rioting sports fans when the local baseball team loses to wild animals running around the city center. One of the baffling things is that we, as a species, really don’t seem to be suited to living in cities and, yet, somehow the vast majority of us pull it off without going completely insane (crabby, yes; insane, not really). But how do we do it?
One scientist has what he’s pretty sure is the answer: the fumes drifting up from your tailpipe. Yep, it turns out that by burning gasoline, you might accidentally be doping up your fellow citizens. Although considering the results, that might actually be a public service.
Itzhak Schnell of Tel Aviv University had 36 people travel through Israel’s busiest city to figure out how the environment put stress on them, and what effects that stress had on their bodies. When they got the data back, there was a surprise waiting for them: the amount of carbon monoxide in their subject’s systems was a lot lower than they’d predicted, just one to 15 parts per million, and the gas itself seemed to have helped the subjects deal with the crowds and noise by having a “narcotic effect.”
Wait, you’re thinking. Carbon monoxide? That gas that I have a little detector installed in my house to keep from killing me? That carbon monoxide?
Yep, they’re one and the same. The difference here is in terms of concentration. Carbon monoxide buildup in your house can kill you because it’s tasteless, odorless, and colorless; if a lot collects in one place, it pushes out the oxygen, and you’ll never notice because you’re sleeping and it slowly sedates you. But carbon monoxide is really a product, like other gases, of burning fossil fuels; a common source of carbon monoxide leaks is an oil or gas-burning furnace. A lot of carbon monoxide comes out of your car’s tailpipe every time you drive down to the store, although of course not nearly enough to be fatal to passers-by, and it hangs around the general environment.
But before you go sniffing your tailpipe, keep this in mind: Schnell’s test subjects still showed rising levels of environmental stress throughout the day, even though the carbon monoxide definitely blunted it and kept stress levels more manageable. Now the job is to repeat the study with more subjects and in different areas, to see if the effect is repeatable and to determine the effects of long-term exposure. Ironically, since carbon monoxide is a greenhouse gas, most cars use a catalytic converter to turn it into carbon dioxide, which leaves the environment faster.
However, if you want to reduce everybody’s stress level without pulling out a major chunk of your car, there are two really simple ways you can help: make sure your muffler is properly installed, and turn down your car stereo. Why? The biggest cause of stress in the environment isn’t crowding or vehicles or anything you’d expect. It’s noise. So, if we’re all a little quieter, maybe we won’t need that carbon monoxide to get through our commute.