Replacing internal combustion engines on our roads with electric vehicles should be a public health priority.Sign up for our EV deals
We talk a lot about the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to fight climate change. But switching from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles (EVs) is more than just a climate change issue; it’s a matter of public health.
Internal combustion engines create air pollution in two ways: (1) by releasing primary pollutants directly into the atmosphere and (2) by releasing direct emissions that create secondary pollution when they react chemically with elements of the atmosphere.
Burning gasoline produces many different pollutants (too many to list here!), among them the six criteria pollutants for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set standards thanks to the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Though we have made great progress in reducing emissions of these pollutants (particularly lead, with the phase-out of leaded gasoline), new research has prompted the EPA to set stricter standards over the years, and today more than 150 million people in the United States still live in counties whose air quality does not meet these National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
Let's meet some of these polluting culprits and their crimes:
(For more information about these pollutants, please see the Union of Concerned Scientists' "Cars, Trucks, and Air Pollution" page or the Federal Highway Administration's Transportation Air Quality Selected Facts and Figures. It's also important to mention that we are limiting our discussion here to the burning of fuel - extracting, refining, and transporting fuel of course all produce dangerous emissions of their own.)
In addition to these pollutants and their effects, climate change itself is a public health threat and carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles are a leading cause of climate change. Climate change has lead to warmer weather, especially in the American South, which in turn has lead to an uptick in mosquito-borne diseases. The Scientific American has a great article that explains how global warming and increasing mosquito-borne diseases go hand-in-hand.
Carbon Brief’s article “Impact of climate change on health is ‘the major threat of the 21st century’” has a great overview of the impacts of climate change on health that discusses everything from exposure to extreme heat, the result of increasing natural disasters, and the spread of infectious diseases such as dengue fever. As climate change makes areas uninhabitable and large groups of people begin to move and become “climate refugees” – either because their farmland has become too dry or the rising sea level has flooded their homes – these health threats will be exacerbated as uprooted communities lose access to health care.
The health impacts of these and other pollutants affect all of us but are most dangerous for children, the elderly, and people whose bodies are already weakened by existing diseases, particularly respiratory illnesses and heart conditions. As is the case with pollution from power plants and other sources, air pollution from cars and trucks and its associated health problems are worse in poorer communities and disproportionately affect communities of color.
This pollution imposes significant costs on individuals and on society as a whole: in healthcare costs, lost workdays, lowered productivity, and human suffering. The American Lung Association (ALA) published a report in 2016 that found that, in 2015, in the 10 states they studied, the health and climate costs of internal combustion engines in passenger vehicles amounted to $1.55/gallon. That’s $24 billion in health costs and $13 billion in climate costs in 2015 in those 10 states alone. Though we may not be paying it at the pump, we are all bearing the costs of the true cost of burning gasoline.
You can read on our Environment page about how electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline- and diesel-powered cars because our electric grid's energy sources as a whole are cleaner (and getting cleaner all the time) than just burning straight fossil fuels in your vehicle. The same is true for other pollutants.
As a result, electric vehicles are a powerful tool to reduce harmful air pollution. The AMA has estimated that if the ten states participating in the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program manage to convert 65% of the vehicle fleet to zero emission vehicles by 2050, we could see $20.5 billion annually in health benefits.