Looking at parents dropping off their children at school this morning, I’ve noticed a peculiar asymmetry in our perception. Most of the parents looked like a health conscious responsible individuals. The school holds health conscious seminars, has a veggie garden and cooking classes to ensure children grown up to be healthy. There is even a non-smoking sign stating you can’t smoke within 5 meters of the school boundary. Yet, when the entire car park is packed with 4×4 petrol/diesel engine cars coming and leaving at the same time emitting equivalent of thousands of cigarettes all smoked at the same time worth of fumes, one wonders why the health consciousness evaporates when it comes to cars? In cities such as Perth in Australia, more than 80% of pollution is caused by cars, and there it has been proven that babies born near major roads have lower birth weights. Does the school or education department warn pregnant mothers who drop older siblings off at school about this risk?
When consumers were shocked in 2015 with the Volkswagen vehicle emissions scandal, I didn’t notice a dramatic reduction in VW cars on the roads. Aside from the many but unknown number of people who died or received cancer and respiratory disease from the additional particulate emissions, if anybody suffered, it would have been investors exposure to VW. I bet their next car won’t be a VW “clean?” diesel. But will it be an electric car? What is the message in this scandal?
A Climate change impact or personal danger?
In my conversation whenever sustainability is mentioned 8 out of 10 times people connect it to global warming or climate change that they mostly don’t believe in. Let’s stop here for a moment and consider the definition of sustainable development.
The original definition was proposed by Brundtland in 1987 in the UN “Our Common Future” report:
Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Sustainability is our dignity and wellbeing that we pass on to our children. Climate is a big part of our wellbeing, but our health is the essence of it.
Now back to fossil fuel powered vehicles. According to US Department of Transportation, Green House Gas (GHG) emissions from cars (28% of total GHG emissions in US, 2006) are only second to electricity generation (34%).
This negative impact might end up in adverse effects on our environment but the mechanics are unclear and too far away for many people to genuinely get worried about. Health effects of car induced air pollution, on the other hand, are direct and very close to many homes.
Health Implications of Vehicle Emissions
- Likely to or definitely causing cancer;
- Producing 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions;
- Non-recyclable, therefore taking away from future generations who cannot use those energy resources; and
- Disproportionately impacting poor households who live near major roads.
The impact of vehicle emissions within residential areas is heightened by the fact that it discharges at road level, rather than from tall chimneys, meaning pedestrians breathe it in undiluted form. In fact, 80% of global populations living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are breathing air that does not comply with the World Health Organization air quality guidelines.
In the US, 44% of the population, or more than 138 million people, live in areas with dangerously high levels of pollution. Seven of the most polluted cities are in California.
The main chemical emitted from the Volkswagen cars is nitrogen oxide, a by-product of burning fossil fuels, that at higher temperatures causes respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and premature deaths. Researchers from MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment found that air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year in the USA, with emissions from road transportation being the most significant contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000.
Globally air pollution is responsible for up to 6.5 million premature deaths a year. Most of these premature deaths occur in China and India, but studies estimate in Australia the impact is around 3,000 premature deaths per year.
Air pollution also deteriorates the quality of life. The latest research from Professors Caleb Finch and Jiu-Chiuan Chen, University of Southern California showed “that outdoor air pollution, in the form of tiny particles released from power plants and automobiles that seep into our lungs and blood, could nearly double the dementia risk in older women”.
Now put these effects in context of shrinking tax-paying population and therefore challenging government budgets to help people manage health issues.
Economical Implications of Vehicle Emissions
Not only does air pollution cost us good health and lives, but it is also economically draining. On average globally, cars contribute to 50% of cost of air pollution. China and India are heavily effect by air pollution, but even countries like Australia must pay a hefty price. In Australia, our health budget is over USD$123 billion, which is 10% of GDP and almost $5,300 per Australian. Around $10.75 billion of that is for air pollution related costs.
The cost is mainly in healthcare expenses and productivity losses. For example, research shows that people living near major roads are more likely to go to hospital. Additionally, when mothers live closer to major roads at their time of pregnancy, the babies risk a lower birth weight at a rate of 128%. Babies born underweight or early spend more time in hospitals and have increased risk of chronic disease in adulthood. Every 1 part per million increase in CO levels, causes a 286% increase in respiratory-related emergency department visits for children in Perth, Australia, who live within 150 meters of a major road way (20,000 cars per day), peaking at five times more likely for children under four years of age. These effects on a given child cost government in healthcare cost, prime caretaker time of work, and future productivity slump due to unhealthy population.
People with low income are disproportionately affected by air pollution which then translates in self-perpetuating social benefits toll. It makes sense that those who can afford to live away from major roads do so, avoiding noise and air pollution. State housing is also usually located near major roadways. These people are less likely to have private health insurance meaning the state will often pick up the medical costs when these people inevitably get ill from the fumes.
What can we do about it?
A lot. Financial investment into a new car is not a light decision. But when you come to it, consider all the factors above. New electric vehicle technology is cool. It is your way to show care for your children and local community.
As for governments, this is a huge policy opportunity to make a significant, long-awaited and long-lasting impact on healthcare and social housing costs, urban planning and infrastructure. This is one area where population support is a given, not even mentioning economic benefits of developing new industries like Electric Vehicle (EV) manufacturing associated with new jobs and regional development boost. Some simple actions like reducing registration fees for EVs, allowing them to travel in bus and taxi lanes would be a start. Health warnings in the parking lots at schools may also help drive purchasing decisions.
It’s time to act and you can do it.