Auto Emissions Harm Public Health, EV's Are The Solution
As gas prices in the US maintain the price of over $4 per gallon due to the uncertainty imposed by the Ukraine-Russia war, more than 59% of Americans say they will make adjustments in their gas consumption habits. These high prices come as an additional deterrent to fossil fuel use, alongside many years of research documenting how exposure to high levels of air pollution from automobiles (such as living next to a highway) is bad for health.
In our newly published, peer-reviewed research, we found that health impairments from moderate car pollution exists in all neighborhoods, regardless of income. They are not limited to extreme exposure levels only, as experienced in many disadvantaged communities.
These new findings increase the urgency for a fast transition away from fossil-fueled cars. The US dramatically lags behind other developed countries, despite a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles (EV) purchases and recent increases in EV sales. Still, the share of new car sales that were EVs was only 4% in 2021, compared to 11% in Europe. And while 38 governments recently signed a resolution to work towards a 100% EV share among all new cars no later than 2035, President Joe Biden has set a much less ambitious target: a 50% EV share by 2030, and 100% EV share only for federal vehicle purchases by 2035.
This is not enough. The US must take a leadership role, rather than trailing behind the progress made in other countries. Our research suggests that increasing the share of "zero-emissions” cars will be hugely beneficial for population health.
"The rate of babies born with low birth weight...grew by 1.9%. Similar increases were observed for asthma attacks among young children."
The American Lung Association: The Electric Vehicle Solution, February 3, 2021.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Electric Vehicles - The Promise for Health and Equity, September 14, 2021.
To study the health impacts of car pollution, we analyzed the rollout of Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating diesel cars across the US between 2008 and 2015. Marketed as "clean diesel” to environmentally conscious consumers, these cars even earned awards such as "Green Car of the Year." Unknown to the public, however, the cars were anything but clean; they emitted health-impairing pollutants up to 150 times the level of comparable gas-fueled vehicles.
The study tracked the dissemination of emissions-cheating diesel cars across the country and linked them to readings from federal pollution monitors and to health information on all babies born during the time of the rollout.
"...there is no safe 'level' of air pollution...the health consequences of car exhaust are felt across the entire socio-economic spectrum."
Each additional emissions-cheating car per 1,000 cars registered in a county increased health-impairing pollutants by 2.2%. And despite the moderate levels of these increases, the additional pollution impaired population health. The rate of babies born with low birth weight -- an indicator of unfavorable fetal development associated with life-long disadvantage -- grew by 1.9%. Similar increases were observed for asthma attacks among young children.
The study estimates the 600,000 emissions-cheating diesel cars sold over those eight years between 2008 and 2015 caused an additional 38,000 babies to be born with low birth weight across the US. Many of the cheating cars were sold to affluent areas with low baseline levels of pollution. The estimated health impacts are particularly strong among non-Hispanic white mothers with college degrees, likely because of greater exposure to these cars.
These results suggest that there is no "safe level” of air pollution, and that the health consequences of car exhaust are felt across the entire socio-economic spectrum. Yet, these detrimental impacts of car pollution can be averted. While the ultimate goal must be to phase out fossil-fuel cars entirely, important steps can be done in the near term. For example, the findings highlight the importance of limiting emissions from the biggest offenders on the road: heavy trucks.
In the VW emissions cheating scandal, which resulted in fines paid by VW in the US of over $25 billion, a single cheating diesel car was polluting at levels typical of a heavy truck. Thus, the findings are immediately applicable to regulating pollution from heavy trucks.
"...the Volkswagen scandal has taught us that strict emissions standards must also come with strong enforcement..."
Econimate: The Emissions Cheating Scandal and the Health Effects of Car Pollution, October 2, 2019.
Vice President Kamala Harris recently announced plans to tighten pollution limits for heavy trucks and buses to reduce NOx emissions from these vehicles by up to 90% over the next decade. However, the Volkswagen scandal has taught us that strict emissions standards must also come with strong enforcement; the incentives to cheat will increase as it becomes more and more difficult to meet stricter emissions standards.
"...consumers and the public need to understand that decreasing pollution from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles...is a local issue across all communities with immediate ramifications for population health."
Information rather than regulation might be a particularly effective way to speed up the electric transition of the private passenger car fleet. The SEC recently announced plans to require companies to disclose greenhouse gas emissions; this information could then be used for investment decisions. Similarly, better information about the health risks of fossil-fueled vehicles could cause consumers to change their purchasing decisions.
Research shows many consumers are concerned about the costs of policies to transition away from fossil-fueled vehicles or are skeptical about the effectiveness of climate-targeted environmental policies. But consumers and the public need to understand that decreasing pollution from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles is not just a global issue with a long-term goal. It is a local issue across all communities with immediate ramifications for population health.
Reuters: 2021 saw jump in greenhouse-gas emissions, says report, January 10, 2022.
While the higher cost of gasoline is a motivating factor, convincing US drivers to switch to electric cars to slow global warming still might prove difficult. Perhaps a more compelling benefit to emphasize is the improvement that reduced emissions would have on the health of consumers’ families and neighbors.
The health benefits of reducing car pollution are shared across all of society. With less pollution from automobiles and diesel-fueled vehicles -- literally everyone can breathe easier.