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Photo by Carolyn Fortuna / CleanTechnica


An Unspoken Benefit Of EVs: Less Auto Fluids Washed Into Our Waterways

When we think of oil spills, we usually envision oil tankers releasing viscous slicks in oceans or seas. However, oil spilled on land often reaches lakes, rivers, and wetlands, where it can also cause damage.

CleanTechnica received the following letter from a reader. They asked us to look into the effect of auto fluids on the environment and the associated benefit of EVs, as EVs don’t have such auto fluids.

“Something that I have never seen mentioned as an advantage of EV adoption is the elimination of oil, transmission fluid, and radiator fluid leaking into the environment from cars with failed gaskets. This is huge considering most cars on the road leak these fluids. All one has to do is look at the oil stains in the parking lots and garages to get an idea. When it rains, these fluids get washed into our soil and waterways. I would like for you to do some research and find out how much of these fluids enter the environment every year in our country and also the world and the environmental impact of them. EV adoption will eliminate these fluid leaks. It’s a huge PR opportunity that is being missed for EVs.”

So I did some research, and here’s what I found.

What’s the Problem with Auto Fluids?

What happens to motor oil that’s spilled in a driveway? Used motor oil is the most commonly spilled type of oil in the US. Leaking oil goes from car to street. Oil spilled on land gets washed from the street into the storm drain and into our lakes, rivers, and streams. Imagine the number of gas-powered cars in your area, and you can envision the amount of oil that finds its way from leaky gaskets into our water.

Why are auto fluids so hazardous? Auto fluids like oil do not dissolve in water. Motor oil contains toxic chemicals which can harm people and wildlife if disposed of improperly. If poured down a household drain, motor oil can foul wastewater treatment plants and septic systems. As little as one part per million can make water unsafe to drink. One pint of oil can make a slick larger than a football field. One quart of motor oil can contaminate a million gallons of water! These auto fluids last a long time and stick to everything from sand to bird feathers — they’re toxic to people, wildlife, and plants.

What ingredients are in used motor oil? Used motor oil contains numerous toxic substances, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known to cause cancer. In addition, tiny pieces of metal from engine wear and tear, such as lead, zinc, and arsenic, make their way into lubricants, further contributing to the polluting potential of used motor oil. Motor oil is exposed to heat and oxygen during engine combustion, which changes its chemical makeup. Because spent motor oil is heavy and sticky and contains an extensive concentrated cocktail of toxic compounds, it can build up and persist in the environment for years.

How much used motor oil ends up in US waterways? The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reports that people in the US spill 180 million gallons of used oil per year, most of which ends up in waterways. According to the American Petroleum Institute, it takes 43 gallons of crude oil compared to just one gallon of used oil to make 2.5 quarts of virgin lubricating oil.

What harm do auto fluids do to the environment? All anthropogenic — human-made — chemicals and the products made from them will make their way into the environment and pose a risk to water resources unless they are deliberately destroyed. Oil contamination in the stormwater has been generally overlooked, even though it causes major environmental pollution and a substantial threat to all species in the ecosystem. Oil, antifreeze, and brake fluids contain heavy metals that can harm aquatic wildlife. The contaminant can eventually make its way into other waterways in the form of runoff and can be toxic to plants and animals. Runoff can cause harm to fish, affecting fish mucous membranes, washing away natural oils, affecting oxygen uptake by the gills, and leaving fish more susceptible to the harmful affects of petroleum, pesticides, metals, and other chemical pollutants.

How bad is used motor oil pollution? Used motor oil is the largest single source of oil pollution in our lakes, streams, and rivers.  On an average day, for example, an estimated 140,000 lbs. of toxic chemicals ranging from petroleum to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) enter Puget Sound. People in the US spill 180 million gallons of used oil each year into our waters. This is 16 times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska (the oil spill that killed at least half a million birds and other wildlife in 1989).

What ingredients are in radiator coolant? The coolant in a radiator contains ethylene glycol, a chemical that can cause serious damage to the nervous system of humans and animals in moderate to high exposures. While modern coolants contain bitter-tasting agents which are behavior deterrents to keep pets and children from drinking them, any coolant leaks can work their way into the ground and waterways, causing serious damage to plants and animals.

What effects do transmission fluid have on the environment? Transmission fluid is typically red and is thicker than engine oil due to higher viscosity. As a result, it is tough to clean up and often stays on the ground for a long time. As the fluid breaks down in the sun, hydrocarbons are released into the air. These chemical compounds can affect breathing in humans and contribute to air pollution that affects everyone.

What reductions would we see if more people drove EVs? If we didn’t have the need for motor oil lubricant in our cars, we would save 1.3 million barrels of oil per day, or half the daily output of the Alaskan Pipeline.

What other mechanical fuels cause environmental damage? Airports are known as one of the most potent oil contamination contributors through the jet fuel that pollutes the local waterways and Storm water. The success in treating storm water largely depends on the improvement of infrastructure, the capturing of pollutants and nutrients from the storm water flows, in addition to the use of wetlands to improve the ecology and water quality of streams and rivers.

What can we do about auto oil spills? Solutions include effective water treatment, source water protection, water conservation, legislation, monitoring and enforcement with government, corporate and public stakeholder involvement. Divest from the fossil fuel industry. Find your voice and call out media channels that glaze over the harm that all-things-fossil-fuel do to our planet. Support government efforts of all sizes to transition to renewable energy. And — the easiest of all — sell your gas-powered vehicle and buy an EV.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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