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by Stephen Gislason MD

Air and Breathing Topics

The Way of Breath
Air Quality
Air Pollution

Climate Change
Airborne Diseases
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Environment and Medicine

Food and Lung Disease
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Cars, Air Pollution and Health

Cars have two opposite personalities. One is friendly and attractive the other is destructive and can be lethal. The desire to own a car is linked to pleasure, sexuality, convenience and freedom. Men lust for attractive, prestigious cars they way they lust for women and women desire men with attractive, prestigious cars.  Car manufacturers have long used attractive, lightly clad women to advertise their latest auto designs. Men are also interested in power, performance and want to know something about the engine, although modern engines are sufficiently complex to discourage even the professional mechanic.

Some of the new engine complexity involves emission control systems that require electronic monitoring and adjustment of engine performance under different operating conditions. Several devices are added to the engine to handle air flow in, fuel delivery and exhaust out. Computers have been added to monitor and control engine performance. Most car engines designed after 1996 have a standard port that allows a diagnostic computer access to information about engine performance.

Driving a car is the most polluting act an average citizen commits. Emissions from passenger vehicles are increasing in Canada and the US despite attempts to make engines more fuel efficient and despite the addition of antipollution devices. The two main reasons are: 1. vehicle use has increased; 2. cars are getting bigger and pick-up trucks, vans and sports vehicles are often replacing smaller, lighter passenger cars.

The average new vehicle in 2003 consumed more fuel that its counterpart in 1988. In the USA in 1987 cars averaged 25.9 miles to the gallon. Fuel efficiency dropped to 24.6 miles/gallon by 1998 and is dropping further as larger vehicles replace smaller ones.

Despite scientific evidence of climate change, governments in most affluent countries have avoided their responsibility to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The USA is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide. US emissions have increased to 7 billion tones of CO2 in 2004, 16 % higher than emissions in the late 90's. The UK has done better reducing their emissions to about 0.6 billion tons, 14% below  1990 levels.

Exhaust from all combustion engines combine to produce local adverse effects on the health of car users and all innocent bystanders. Cities have become islands of toxic chemicals from the unrestrained use of vehicles burning fossil fuels.

Cars are noisy, ugly, often dangerous and dominate the experience of modern living. We are now used to the carnage on  roads and highways- attempts to reduce death and disability from our motorized containers have not substantially altered the negative impact on society. The adverse health effects of car exhaust are pervasive and difficult to measure.

Television Ads for  sports and recreation vehicles show solitary, impeccable machines  in wilderness locations. One TV ad shows a couple making a mad dash to escape the city core in their expensive, luxury upholstered clone of the land-rover. The ads are selling a fantasy of wilderness, fresh air and escape. Is the consumer is completely deluded? These vehicles are mostly found in suburban driveways and in the traffic jams of polluted cities. They have nowhere to go to escape the  environmental degradation they help to create.  4x4 drives and large tires are rarely useful and are not suited to highway driving, You see these machines, submerged in suburban driveways by the floods they helped to create.

Combustion engines contribute to greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere and are responsible for climate changes. A sane, sober revision of vehicle use is long overdue.

What Can I do? Drive Less

Both local and global pollution would be reduced if each car-driving person pledged to use their car 30% less starting immediately. Cities can reduce vehicular traffic by 30 % over the next 3 to 5 years. This is a responsible, individual contribution to a global problem.

Each person can drive less and resist the temptation to buy larger, heavier cars, vans, trucks and sports vehicles. If you really need a 4x4 to drive off-roads in wilderness settings, you need a rugged clunker that's already got scratches, dents and mud on the tires. Carry a shovel, axe, chain saw, and a come-along in the back. If you can afford it, add a heavy duty winch up front. Stay off highways.

See Disease Effects, Car Exhaust

Solution: Reduce Air Pollution; change  motor vehicle use:

The use of cars must be re-defined. Car use has to be considered a privilege, not a right. The cost of environmental damage and reclamation has to be added to the cost of owning and operating a car. Vehicle use should no longer be subsidized.

Reduce number of Vehicles - Urban areas need to set vehicular quotas and issue permits to limit the number of vehicles to control regional traffic congestion and air pollution.

Improve efficiency of vehicles - reverse the trend to larger vehicles; engineering solutions to emissions of combustion engines. Hybrid cars are a step in the right direction but in small numbers will not have a significant impact on air pollution. Reduced vehicle use and traffic reform can become a much bigger and more immediate remedy for urban air pollution. Improved efficiency of traffic is important. Examples are: dedicated bus lanes and  priority for car-pools and vehicles with 3 or more passengers. Traffic can be scheduled to optimize road usage; e.g. commercial traffic at night; large companies can stagger working hours and decentralize administrative operations. Commuting long distances in cars to work needs to be phased out. Single passenger commuting to work should be strongly discouraged.

Recreational driving can be reduced immediately. Car owners need to pay for miles driven and fuel burned on an escalating scale. Each person can have a "free driving" allotment per year and pay increasing insurance and/or taxes on fuel consumption beyond this limit. The most accessible measure of air pollution contribution is the amount of fossil fuel burned.

Governments can encourage the reduction of vehicular use by:

  • Promoting Voluntary abstention  
  • Increase Public Transit - diversify options and  limit access to existing roads.
  • Separate commercial and private traffic to increase efficient use of roads
  • Stop building car-oriented roads and highways
  • Replace 30% of the existing roads designed for cars with a variety of transportation options
  • In cities, build more walking paths, bicycle routes and paths for small electric vehicles
  • Reduce commuting - link residence and business activities by rezoning and rebuilding cities.
  • Reward car-pools and car-sharing plans
  • Redefine road use by defining access privileges - no longer a right
  • Road Tolls and increased gasoline and vehicle registration taxes
  • Base car license fees on fuel consumption in the previous year. Use exponential fee rate increase for high fuel consumption individuals. 
  • Provide generous development grants and tax incentives for all non-polluting transportation alternatives.

Governments can use a combination of

  • Voluntary and Reward Schemes
  • Compulsory and Penalty Schemes
  • Incentives for New Technology and Changes in Industrial Fuel Consumption

Long term solutions require that all vehicles use less polluting energy sources such ethanol, biofuels, propane, natural gas and hydrogen. I am sorry to say that the marketing of "green solutions" to global warming is becoming yet another scam. One problem is that producing alternate fuels and hybrid cars often requires CO2 emissions that offset or cancel the benefits of improve vehicular design. When ethanol is made from corn, more than 75% of its energy value is spent on its production. Burning ethanol still produces carbon dioxide. If an electric car is recharged with electricity produced by a fossil fuel burning generator, there may be no net benefit to the atmosphere. A real solution would reduce air pollution beginning at source materials and would continue through the use cycle of the vehicle. A gas-inefficient clunker driven twice a week for 20 km is a better choice than  a new expensive hybrid car driven everyday for 100 Km. No solution is better than reduced vehicle use.

The ultimate cars might burn hydrogen in fuel cells, but despite working prototypes, a hydrogen fuel system is a distant fantasy, The biggest problem is that producing hydrogen requires a large amount of energy. In Canada, there are opportunities to dam rivers and produce electricity with falling water, a non polluting, renewable energy resource that could be used to produce hydrogen. A more problematic energy source for hydrogen production would be be nuclear reactors that "burn" uranium or plutonium, but no-one has a good solution for disposing of radioactive waste. See biofuels.

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