07/24/19 • Michael Martinez, EZ-EV Environment & Sustainability Specialist
Of all the things you think about when looking for a new car — price, MPG, auxiliary features, and heated seats — health is probably not one of them. But medical professionals and major health organizations like the American Lung Association think it should be, and that’s why they’re backing EVs.
Understandably, the connection between health and purchasing a new car is not an intrinsic connection to make. And with so many other things on the brain when you’re at the dealership, I’d be surprised if the topic of health crossed your mind even once. But maybe, after reading this post, the topic of health might just find its way into your mind the next time you’re perusing the dealership showroom, because your car actually does have a significant impact on your health.
The City of Angels…and Smog
(Downtown Los Angeles covered in smog, 1973. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)
To better understand the influence your vehicle can have on health, there is perhaps no better example than Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, like Beijing, Mexico City, and Denver, is prone to trap pollution. Its mountainous geography, combined with warm temperatures and high altitudes, create the perfect conditions to trap dirty air.
In the early part of the 20th century, fumes from industrial practices plagued Los Angeles, and the city saw its first bouts of smog. LA’s struggles with air quality only increased as people returned home from war in the 40s and the city’s economy and population boomed. The number of vehicles on the road more than doubled in the years between 1940 and 1950 from 1 million to more than 2 million. That increase in vehicles only fed the city’s already worsening smog.
LA’s booming population and reliance on personal vehicles made the city home to some of the dirtiest air in the world. Doctors saw an increase in smog-related illnesses — chest pain, coughing, irritated eyes and respiratory tract, nausea, and headaches. At its worst, in 1974, ozone particulate levels hit .51 parts per million, which, for anyone not familiar with air quality indices, is the real life equivalent of that spooky fog Scooby Doo likes to cut with a knife. Exposure to particulate levels that high would cause your eyes to tear up in just a couple of minutes, if that long.
Ronald Reagan, who was Governor at the time, issued a statement urging Los Angeles County residents to “limit all but necessary travel” due to the health risks. This put California’s emissions regulations into high gear, and ultimately set the stage to make the state a national leader in fuel efficiency standards.
Today, the smog issue in LA has mostly been curtailed, but all around the country more and more vehicles are added to the road each day. Each new gas powered vehicle on the road produces thousands of pounds of CO2 each year, polluting the air and contributing negatively to air quality, especially in metropolitan areas. This reality, promulgated by the recent EPA emissions report showing that the transportation sector has surpassed every other industry to become the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, has caught the attention of the public health industry.
Medical professionals and health organizations like the American Lung Association have come out in support of electric vehicles and stricter vehicle emissions standards. Health advocates cite EVs as one of the best ways to reduce air pollution and prevent future respiratory illnesses like childhood asthma and emphysema.
In February of 2017, the American Lung Association launched a 7-state electric vehicle project they call EVOLVE in the Midwest as part of an effort to promote electric vehicles in an often overlooked market for EVs. The ALA and its various Clean Cities partners are hoping the EVOLVE program will raise awareness of the environmental, health, and performance benefits of electric vehicles.
The ALA seems to recognize the tangible, positive impacts to health accompanying a transition to electrified transportation. Lew Bartfield, the president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest (where the program is underway) said of EVs, “These advanced, modern vehicles reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and smog, improving air quality and public health.”
With EVs producing less emissions both direct (from tailpipe) and over their lifetime than a traditional gas powered vehicle, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that EVs are far better for public health.
Let’s take the issue of idling for example. You’ve probably seen “No Idling” signs in parking lots, near schools, and on crowded city blocks, but who actually pays attention to those, right? No Idling Zones are almost never enforced (personally, I’ve never once seen one enforced) and, idling more often than not occurs in the places most at risk. When I was in elementary and middle school, despite having busses provided, it was common that parents would drop off and pick up their kids at school. Parents would begin lining up in the car queue at least a half hour before school let out. By the time the school bell rang and we flooded through the school doors, we were met with a line of cars (all of them running) that snaked through the parking lot to the side-streets of the adjacent neighborhood. On hot, stagnant days the air would smell like a gas station. With the fumes we were breathing, we might as well have been running behind a mosquito spray truck.
You might be thinking that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, but air pollution experts and scientists have studied the harmful effects idling can have on public health. Exposure to exhaust fumes (especially in children and for prolonged periods of time) can permanently damage brain cells and has been linked to several neurodevelopment disorders including autism and lower IQ levels. Apart from neurological implications, breathing exhaust fumes from idling can lead to lung damage, increased asthma rates, allergies, and cardiovascular problems.
All of this is why organizations like the ALA are getting behind EVs, which produce zero tailpipe emissions and contribute significantly lower lifetime emissions than their gas counterparts. Even a plug-in hybrid can reduce emissions by more than 50% over its lifetime, if you’re not totally ready to make the switch to full electric. If you want more information about how much money and emissions you save by making the switch, check out our blog here.
So, for your next vehicle, try taking health into the equation. It might be worth your while.