By Lloyd Levine
Want to improve your health? Drive an electric vehicle. Ok, so maybe that is overstating it a bit. Beyond improving your psychic well being, an electric car will have a negligible impact on your individual health. However, if everyone were to start driving Plug-In Electric Vehicles (PEVs), the cumulative impact on public health would be dramatic.
Plug-in electric vehicles, which are powered by an electric motor and a large battery, are substantially the same as cars powered by internal combustion engines. Their frames, bodies, and interiors are made out of the same materials and generate the same amount of toxics. The difference between the gas and electric engine is what gives PEVs the big edge in public health.
A gas-powered car generates all manner of toxic pollutants and particulate matter. Exposure to those substances increases the risk of developing cancer and lung disease. Tail pipe emissions are by far the biggest source of their pollution. While carbon dioxide is the most commonly known, tailpipe emissions also contain:
• Nitrogen oxides, which impair visibility, cause lung damage, worsen emphysema and bronchitis, and exacerbate heart disease;
• Hydrocarbons, which react with NOx and sunlight to form air pollution commonly known as smog;
• Sulfur dioxide, which is a key component of “acid rain”, and also aggravates existing heart and lung diseases;
• Particulate matter, which can get deep into the lungs and adhere to lung tissue. PM10 aggravates asthma, causes respiratory illness, and can be a cause of cancer;
• Benzene, which, over the long-term can suppress the immune system, cause excessive bleeding, and damage bone marrow. Benzene is also linked to leukemia and other blood cancers;
• Ozone, which is a byproduct directly created from tailpipe emissions. Ozone causes respiratory illness and distress, and makes people more sensitive to allergens, which in turn triggers asthma attacks.
With nearly 30 million cars on the road in California alone, the combined effect of all these chemicals is a significant health hazard. It is such a health hazard that federal, state, and local government agencies are expending significant time, money and energy to find ways to reduce and mitigate the pollution.
Pure PEVs (as opposed to plug-in hybrids) have no combustion and no tailpipe, therefore no emissions. Further, while tailpipe emissions are the biggest source of vehicle emissions, they are not the only source.
Evaporation of gasoline from the engine of cars occurs in more than just a trivial amount. Since PEVs have no gas there is no evaporation.
Other negative health impacts of gas-powered vehicles are reduced in PEVs or don’t occur at all. Prolonged exposure to motor oil has multiple, negative health effects, and oil that is not properly disposed of can leach into and poison drinking water. Because PEVs have no pistons to lubricate, they don’t need or use any oil at all.
Brakes are also a significant and surprising source of particulate matter. When brakes are employed, the force necessary to stop a car creates toxic particulate matter from the pads. The particulate matter gets into the air and into the water system and can cause respiratory illness and cancer.
The regenerative braking technology employed by PEVs to increase battery range significantly reduces brake wear. The energy return system slows the car significantly the moment the driver takes the foot off the gas. PEVs can go from 35 mph to 3 mph in half a city block without pressing the brake pedal.
The shift to PEVs will result in an increase in the need for electricity. That has caused some people to wonder if emissions from the increase in electricity generation offset the benefits from the reduction in tailpipe emissions. However, a shift from gas-powered to electric-powered vehicles would result in only a modest increase in generation, but a dramatic reduction in tailpipe emissions. The tailpipe emissions of cars account for approximately 50% of all air pollution, and 80% of air pollution in urban areas. The increase in electricity generation, meanwhile, may not result in any increase in emissions, depending on the source of the power.
In 2011 approximately 30% of California’s in-state generation came from sources of electricity that have no emissions, and 53% came from natural gas. Those percentages will increase as California meets its 33% renewable energy mandate and replaces existing in-state nuclear and imported coal power. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a natural gas-fired power plant produces virtually no sulfur dioxide or particulate matter, and minimal amounts of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric generate no emissions.
And here’s an important point that does not get enough attention: it takes the equivalent of 6 kilowatt hours of electricity just to refine one gallon of gas. An average plug-in electric vehicle can drive 16-20 miles on that same 6 kWh of electricity. In other words, it would be more efficient – and better for the air — to send the electricity straight to the car rather than routing it through the oil refinery to make gas.
No matter how it is viewed, the start-to-finish process of creating and delivering electricity, and driving a car powered by it is much healthier (or far less harmful) than the start-to-finish process of creating and delivering gasoline, and driving a car powered by it.
The net effect of thousands of electric cars replacing gas powered cars will be a dramatic reduction of harmful emissions at every step in the process. The reduced tailpipe emissions alone give PEVs a huge health advantage over gas-powered cars. When you add in the elimination of oil, gasoline evaporation, and the reduction in brake pad pollution, as well as the emissions generated in the transportation and refining of petroleum, converting our transportation system to PEVs will dramatically improve public health.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The conversion of an entire fleet begins with the purchase of a single car. Drive electric today; it’s good for your health….and mine.
Lloyd Levine is a former member of the state Assembly and a volunteer with Sac EV, a local club that promotes the development and use of electric vehicles. He can be reached at email@example.com