High-tech equipment is being installed which aims to reveal the impact of an estimated half million vehicle trips made across Sheffield each day.
Sheffield Council has started a month-long study to monitor emissions of harmful particulates and nitrogen dioxide gas.
Data will be used to help determine which areas suffer most and to compile an action plan.
Proposals could include ideas such as declaring part of the city centre a Low Emission Zone, which would see polluting vehicles banned.
The specialist recording devices being used to measure pollution belong to the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds and use ultraviolet and infra-red beams.
Vehicles’ tail-pipe emissions are being measured at Western Bank, Eyre Street, Prince of Wales Road, Attercliffe Centre, Asline Road and Broad Lane.
Under European Union law, the city must reduce emissions by 2015 or face heavy fines.
The study was welcomed by Jenny Patient, spokeswoman for Sheffield Climate Alliance. She said: “Air quality is a serious problem in terms of health impact. The study sounds like good news.”
Coun Jack Scott, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for environment, said: “Each year, the impact of air quality on health costs the Sheffield economy £160 million and results in up to 500 early deaths. One reason for this is traffic.
“We know in theory the amount of harmful gases vehicles produce from manufacturers, but we have never tested levels throughout the city.”