A new study found the shift to EVs could prevent millions of childhood asthma attacks

A white electric vehicle charger plugged into the back of a black car parked next to a sidewalk lined with trees

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In cities across the country, people of color, many of them low income, live in neighborhoods criss-crossed by major thoroughfares and highways.

The housing there is often cheaper — it’s not considered particularly desirable to wake up amid traffic fumes and fall asleep to the rumble of vehicles over asphalt.

But the price of living there is steep: Exhaust from all those cars and trucks leads to higher rates of childhood asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and pulmonary ailments. Many people die younger than they otherwise would have, and the medical costs and time lost to illness contributes to their poverty.

Imagine if none of those cars and trucks emitted any fumes at all, running instead on an electric charge. That would make a staggering difference in the trajectory, quality, and length of millions of lives, particularly those of young people growing up near freeways and other sources of air pollution, according to a study from the American Lung Association.

The study, released today, found that a widespread transition to EVs could avoid nearly 3 million asthma attacks and hundreds of infant deaths, in addition to millions of lower and upper respiratory ailments.

Children, being particularly vulnerable to air pollution, would benefit most, said study author William Barret, the association’s national director on advocacy and clean air.

“Children are smaller, they’re breathing more air pound for pound than an adult,” Barret said. “The risk can be immediate, but it’s also long lasting.”

Some 27 million children live in communities affected by high levels of air pollution, the study found. Their vulnerability begins in the womb, where vehicle exhaust, factory smoke, and other pollutants can jump-start inflammation in a fetus and its mother, causing health problems for both and leading to preterm birth and congenital issues that can continue for a lifetime.

Prior research by the American Lung Association found that 120 million people in the U.S. breathe unhealthy air daily, and 72 million live near a major trucking route — though, Barret added, there’s no safe threshold for air pollution. It affects everyone.

Bipartisan efforts to strengthen clean air standards have already made a difference across the country. In California, which, under the Clean Air Act, can set state rules stronger than national standards, 100 percent of new cars sold there must be zero emission by 2035.

Truck manufacturers are, according to the state’s Air Resources Board, already exceeding anticipated zero-emissions truck sales, putting them two years ahead of schedule.

All that’s needed is for the EPA to grant California the waivers required to implement these standards.

Other states have begun to take action, too, often reaching across partisan lines to do so.  Maryland, Colorado, New Mexico, and Rhode Island adopted zero-emissions standards as of the end of 2023.

The Biden administration is taking similar steps, though it has slowed its progress after automakers and United Auto Workers pressured the administration to relax some of its more stringent EV transition requirements.

While Barret finds efforts to support the electrification of passenger vehicles exciting, he said the greatest culprits are diesel trucks. “These are 5 to 10 percent of the vehicles on the road, but they’re generating the majority of smog-forming emissions of ozone and nitrogen,” Barret said.

Ozone is especially harmful. When ozone makes its way inside the human body, it causes what amounts to a sunburn, inflaming and degrading respiratory tissues.

Lately, there’s been significant progress on truck decarbonization. The Biden administration has made promises to ensure that 30 percent of all big rigs sold are electric by 2030.

California has moved aggressively to curb truck emissions, aiming to make medium- and heavy-duty vehicles zero-emission “where possible” by 2035, while heavily regulating certain kinds of freight trucks.

Though legislative mandates and tax incentives like those in the Inflation Reduction Act go a long way toward getting EVs on the road, they don’t remove internal combustion trucks and cars, which pose enough of a health threat that advocates are urging immediate change.

Ideally, Barret said, the Biden administration would immediately roll out clear-cut standards to slash emissions. It is considering truck standards that would by 2032 reduce emissions from heavy-duty vehicles 29 percent below 2021 levels using battery-electric and hybrid vehicles.

The current standard only explicitly calls for the use of advanced diesel engines. The study’s authors also strongly recommend that the EPA finalize multi-pollutant regulations for light and medium-duty vehicles, which are currently under consideration.

Such measures, combined with an increase in public EV charging stations, vehicle tax credits, and other incentives, could change American highways, not to mention health, for good.

“We just need to see more and more of that given the growing urgency of the climate crisis,” Barret said.

Article Details

February 28, 2024 10:35 AM
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