In the summer of this year the American Lung Association released a report titled, “Driving to Clean Air: Health Benefits of Zero-Emission Cars and Electricity.” Typically a person might not expect that driving personal transportation could result in clean air because gas- and diesel-powered vehicles using internal combustion engines produce unhealthy emissions that are harmful to people and the planet. The report presents a new vision, however, one that foresees an America running on clean, renewable electricity and people driving electric vehicles, meaning all-electric vehicles. This vision is important for a number of reasons, some of which may be surprising to those who are unaware of the harm caused by gas- and diesel-powered vehicle emissions.
William Barrett, National Senior Director of Advocacy for Clean Air at the American Lung Association, answered some questions about the report for CleanTechnica.
Q: The report says that switching to 100% zero-emission new passenger vehicles and clean, non-combustion electricity generation by 2050 could result in about 89,300 fewer premature human deaths by reducing air pollution. How did you arrive at that total, and which Americans are most vulnerable to premature death from air pollution exposure?
A: The report includes a target of 100% zero-emission new passenger vehicle sales by 2035, coupled with non-combustion electricity generation. Cumulatively, the health benefits shown through our modeling of this scenario hit nearly 90,000 premature deaths avoided because the air pollution from these sources will be greatly reduced, though not eliminated fully. We used a series of modeling tools to arrive at these results, and for the health benefits specifically, we used the US EPA’s COBRA model for health benefits analysis.
Q: The switch to electric vehicles and clean electricity could also provide $978 billion in public health benefits. What are the benefits, and are they distributed across the U.S. or are there areas that will benefit more?
A: The $978 billion is a national figure, but based in more localized results. For example, the report highlights state-by-state findings that vary depending on local sources of pollution from power plants, refineries or the size of the on-road vehicle populations. Every state shows benefits from this transition to zero-emission technologies. The benefits range from reduced asthma attacks to premature deaths avoided because the air would be cleaner as the result of more non-combustion technologies in the vehicle and power sectors.
Q: The aforementioned switch could result in 2.2 million fewer asthma attacks. What forms of air pollution linked with gas and diesel-powered vehicles cause asthma attacks? How dangerous are asthma attacks?
A: Both particle pollution and ozone pollution associated with vehicle exhaust can contribute to asthma attacks. In fact, the Health Effects Institute’s latest comprehensive study on the health harms of transportation pollution re-confirmed the link between the onset of new asthma cases and traffic pollution exposure. Asthma attacks can result in the need for increased medication, emergency department visits, hospitalizations and can be fatal.
Q: The report also mentions that the switch could result in 10.7 million fewer lost workdays. Why is that the case?
A: By reducing harmful pollution, workers would be less likely to be too sick to work. Whether that is due to asthma flare ups, cardiovascular illness or other impacts, cleaning the air can remove a significant health risk from people’s daily lives. While not included in the report, there is also a significant benefit in terms of improving children’s health that could mean parents don’t need to stay home from when the child is too ill to attend school, camp or other activities.
Q: Heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer can be caused by exposure to air pollution. Is the general public aware of this fact and that the source of the air pollution is combusting fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel fuel and coal?
A: The goal for our report is to do just that — to draw attention to the existing health risks posed by the transportation and power sectors. We want people to see the report and make the link to the unacceptable risk posed by fossil fuels in our daily lives, and what the health-related benefits could be through a transition to non-combustion, zero-emission technologies that are healthier, less costly and more efficient in the long run.
Q: In general, does American air pollution impact people of color more than white people?
A: Yes, and our State of the Air 2023 report puts a very fine point on this. There are almost 120 million Americans living in a community impacted by unhealthy air, and the majority of those affected are people of color. We found that a person of color in the United States is over 60 percent more likely to live in a community impacted by unhealthy levels of ozone and/or particle pollution than a white person. When we look at the communities with a failing grade in all three of the State of the Air categories, a person of color is 3.7 times more likely than a white person to live with the most unhealthy air. The US EPA has also noted this disparity in that 72 million Americans live in close proximity to a major transportation/freight corridor, and those living along those routes are more exposed to harmful pollution, have lower incomes and are more likely to be people of color.
A Final Note For Context
89,300 Americans dying prematurely is quite obviously a huge number of lost lives. The good news is that this enormous loss of life can be prevented. For some context, a little over 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Air pollution from gas- and diesel-powered vehicles is typically not that visible except for some moments when the vehicles accelerate and it is possible to see a surge of smoke or soot from a vehicle’s tailpipe, bus vertical exhaust pipe, or tractor trailer “smoke stack.” We don’t see most of the tiny, microscopic particulate matter, aka soot, nitrogen oxides, or ozone and so we might not be that aware of it or even think about it. It’s there though, wherever gas and diesel vehicles are being operated, especially in large cities, on and near freeways, and in or near ports. Exposure to toxic exhaust takes quite a toll on human health and results in far too many premature deaths. Eventually, as clean, renewable electricity and electric vehicles replace fossil fuels and the vehicles that use them our nation will be healthier.
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