With recent neighborhood opposition to noise walls, an interesting question arises related to the effects of noise walls on air pollution. Do roadside barriers protect the neighbors from tail-pipe pollutants? Does this result in more pollution on the roadway itself?
The answer, as with everything is that it depends.
Baldaufa et al. (2008) in Impacts of noise barriers on near-road air quality (Atmospheric Environment Volume 42, Issue 32, October 2008, Pages 7502–7507) write in their abstract:
Numerous health studies conducted worldwide suggest an increase in the occurrence of adverse health effects for populations living, working, or going to school near large roadways. A study was designed to assess traffic emission impacts on air quality near a heavily traveled highway. The portion of highway studied included a section of open field and a section with a noise barrier adjacent to the road. In addition, the section containing the noise barrier included a portion with vegetation in the vicinity of the barrier. Thus, this field study provided an opportunity to evaluate near-road air quality with no barriers, with a noise barrier only, and with a noise barrier and vegetation adjacent to the road. Pollutants measured under these scenarios included carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM).
Measurements showed the effects of a noise barrier on near-road air quality. The presence of this structure often led to pollutant concentration reductions behind the barrier during meteorological conditions with winds directionally from the road. CO and PM number concentrations generally decreased between 15 and 50% behind the barrier. However, conditions occurred when pollutant concentrations were greater behind the barrier than when no barrier was present. These results imply that the presence of a noise barrier can lead to higher pollutant concentrations on the road during certain wind conditions. In addition, the study results suggested that the presence of mature trees in addition to the barrier further lowered PM number concentrations.