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Air Quality

Published on September 23rd, 2014 | by Stephen Grinwis


Air Pollution From Cars Harms Babies

September 23rd, 2014 by  

EZPassI’ll be honest. I found this surprising, even for someone pretty heavily biased towards electric vehicles. However, a study out of Princeton and Columbia did a pretty robust analysis and this is their conclusion.

They took advantage of the introduction of E-ZPass to compare and contrast groups of pregnant women within close range to toll plazas. They focused on areas that had introduced the quick and easy toll payment system. The implication is that the new toll system would reduce local congestion, and that, thus, people who live close will have less exposure to the airborne pollutants produced by gasmobiles. The results are pretty convincing. The test group of mothers within 2 km of a toll plaza saw a significant reduction of prematurity and low birth weight of infants, both key indicators of health in infants. The impact is greater the closer you live to such a toll plaza.

Some Context

I don’t know about you, but I tend to think of modern cars as being pretty clean running. They have very complicated computer controlled emissions systems, with catalytic converters and advanced monitoring systems to ensure that these systems remain working. Combine this with the fact that the average age of a car in the US is just 11.4 years old, and you would think you have a relatively clean-burning car fleet, CO2 emissions aside. That’s a 2005 vehicle. That’s really not that old! So, we have a fleet of relatively new cars, with advanced emission control systems…. And yet, removing even small amounts of traffic congestion, and the associated pollution exposure has a significant impact on the health of babies. It probably has a health impact on humans of all types and sizes, but infants were the focus of this study.

My Thoughts on Air Pollution

This just reinforces to me the externalities associated with burning fossil fuels. If this trivial reduction in air pollution is enough to make babies healthier, how much harAir Pollutionm are we causing to ourselves? We climb into our cars, trucks, and SUVs every day, and kill ourselves a little more. Not only does that giant SUV cost you a lot of money, it’s actually harming babies. Once you switch to an EV, you can actually smell the stink of a gasoline burning car. You’re no longer conditioned to the funky smells they give off, and you can smell the lingering odor of exhaust and gasoline vapor. In my opinion, this is a really good reason for governments to continue, and expand, support for electric vehicles. This is doubly true for nations with socialized medicine. Imagine the money you could save from no longer having to treat all those premature and low-birth-weight babies? It makes me wonder, in all honesty, if subsidies for electric cars actually pay for themselves in the form of reduced externalities, not including the enormous costs of climate change.

How big of an impact is air pollution anyways? Turns out, I’m not the first one to go looking for such a beast. The Canadian Medical Association performed a study in British Columbia, and found that air pollution in 2008 caused the following:

  • 306 acute premature deaths
  • 1,158 hospital admissions
  • 8,763 emergency department visits
  • 62,112 doctor’s office visits
  • 2,526,900 minor illnesses

That doesn’t sound cheap…. What kind of money do we spend dealing with all of that? Turns out, I’m once again not the first person to ask that kind of a question. There’s an excellent study out of Ontario that categorizes the costs. Here’s the breakdown for the Province of Ontario’s projected costs for 2015:

  • $402,883,900 in lost productivity
  • $571,089,400 in healthcare costs
  • $593,149,400 for pain and suffering
  • $8,279,400,000 for loss of life.

That gives you a total of nearly $10 billion in costs. For comparison, Ontario is planning on spending up to $85 million over the next few years on EV subsidies. In that context, it sounds cheap, doesn’t it?


Gasoline automobile congestion causes a significant increase in the number of babies born prematurely, and with low birth weight. These are both key indicators of health in infants. It seems that, despite modern pollution controls, even new cars have high enough air pollution emissions to cause harm. Overall, air pollution is costing us a lot of money, and from my back-of-napkin calculations, we will actually end up saving money in promoting and driving electric vehicles, and switching away from fossil fuel–based power generation.

wind turbine germany

Wind turbines in Germany. Image Credit: Zachary Shahan | CleanTechnica (CC BY-SA 4.0 license)


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About the Author

is an EV evangelist, and general automotive enthusiast. His engineering background means he tends to nerd out a bit on the numbers. He focuses primarily on battery technology, wind power, and electric vehicles. If you can't find him running the numbers, or writing, you might find him lifting weights somewhere!

  • Joseph Dubeau

    Is the picture real? The smoke stacks are too close to the houses.
    Most of the smoke is coming from behind the trees.

  • Good article. Thanks Stephen.

  • There’s no such thing as “clean burning”. I hate the phrase “clean burning natural gas”….Even the cleanest low emission gasoline vehicle is a filthy tractor compared to an EV.

  • Irene Smith

    Noise pollution is an issue as well. Transit agencies need to buy and use buses that are not noisy and find solutions when buses stop at intersections, as accelerating is very noisy and is costly. Shouldn’t buses dictate traffic signals? I also think that architects need to keep in mind noise pollution. Oh! And, here in BC, Hells Angels gangs drive bikes that are not regulated for noise pollution.

  • Matt

    FF externals are killing us, even ignoring climate change.
    At some point governments will wake up and start charging them.
    US needs to: (A) add about a dollar to gas tax, use to fix road, mass transportation, bike paths, etc (that is cleaner transportation). (B) Have a real CO2 tax, refund 80% equal per person, 20% to eff in public buildings. Health saving grow as CO2 tax is increase. I’ve always thought that imported FF pays double and exported triple; just to be “fair”.

  • Air pollution harms everyone. Likely due to the fact, for the existence of our species we have adapted to unpolluted air.

  • Offgridman

    Thank you for speaking out about this, and please do it again and often.
    I remember seeing US studies on this since back in the sixties, sadly some of the early ones were even funded by the cigarette companies trying to show how much safer you were smoking rather than driving on the highway..
    Also unfortunately this type of information makes a blip in the news one day and then the next people go back to worrying about the next war or fuel shortage.
    So as you can please continue to bring this information into their thoughts and help bring about a faster conversion to electric transportation.

    • jeffhre

      Wars-are often precipitated by conflicts over critical resources, such as foreign sources of energy. Fuel shortages-often occur when foreign sources of energy become insecure or rapidly escalate in price. Automotive air pollutants-are most often from burning gas and diesel for propulsion. Hmmm, wars, fuel shortages and pollution: there has just go to be a solution in there somewhere…

  • MrL0g1c

    Of course air pollution especially vehicle pollution harms just about everybody. For the UK the number for just traffic pollution is approx’ 38,000 deaths per year.

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