Do bus fumes damage books?

Bus with exhaust

Q. Do diesel fumes, like from a bus, damage books? A request was made to the city bus transit offices to move a bus stop based on the argument that bus fumes damage books.

 A. Yes, auto emissions, including diesel fumes, can damage books. As explained in the 2003 Assesssing Presevation Needs: A Self-Survey Guide (PDF) by Beth Patkus published by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (page 32 of the 94-page PDF):

2. Control of Pollutants

. . . Dirt and dust particles soil and abrade paper. Gaseous pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides (generated from automobiles and industry), peroxides, and ozone catalyze chemical reactions that lead to acid formation in paper… Exposure of collections to particulate and gaseous pollutants should be controlled to the extent possible.

The American Institute for Conservation includes on its web page, Caring for Your Treasures: Documents and Art on Paper:

Limiting Exposure to Gaseous Pollution and Airborne Particulates

Pollutants from industrial gases, auto emissions, and heating sources are readily absorbed into paper and media and may form compounds detrimental to their stability. Dust, soot, and soil are difficult to remove safely from delicate, porous paper surfaces. . .

Bonnie Parr, Historical Documents Conservator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL explains in great detail in How To . . . Take Care of Old Books and Historical Documents: Three Basic Steps to Preserve Historical Collections (PDF):


Whether paper-based historical collections are in storage or on display, consider the environment they are in. Paper is an organic material that is very reactive to its surrounding conditions. It is vulnerable to damage by the agents of mechanical, chemical, and photochemical deterioration present in poor environments – dust, air pollutants, fluctuating temperature and humidity conditions, and exposure to light. A proper environment – one that is clean, cool, dry, and dark – plays a significant role in the long term preservation of historical materials.

Dust and air pollutants are acidic materials that can cause chemical damage to paper-based items. Because paper readily absorbs acid from its environment, contact with dust and air pollutants causes the paper itself to become acidic and brittle. The abrasiveness in dust particles causes mechanical damage to paper by cutting into paper fibers. Dust is also a food source for insects and, in the right conditions, can foster mold growth.

Keep historical collections in a clean place. Routinely dust and vacuum in storage and display areas. Regularly change air filters for heating and air conditioning systems. Keep historical materials away from the vicinity of food, open windows, and sources of fumes (including cleaning products, paints, tobacco smoke, and car exhaust). . .

Paper materials tend to expand and contract in response to changes in temperature and humidity. In fluctuating conditions, the constant expansion and contraction causes wear and tear on book structures and documents. Conditions of heat and moisture accelerate the aging of paper materials and create the right environment for insect activity and mold growth.

Moving the bus stop should be considered if bus fumes are indeed a threat to library materials kept just inside -- and to the people using those materials. However, it is also vitally important to provide as many avenues as possible for city residents to regularly travel to and from the library safely.