Cleaner air from zero-emission vehicles could save thousands of lives, study says

American Lung Association says billions could be saved as well, once transportation stops using fossil fuels
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Parking and a charging station for electric vehicles

If the nation transitions to zero-emission vehicles, thousands of premature deaths might be prevented and billions of dollars in health care costs avoided, according to a study released by the American Lung Association.

“The Road to Clean Air’’ is a national report by the group highlighting the potential for major public health benefits associated with widespread electrification of the transportation sector, provided it occurs along with a similar move to have renewable energy provide much of the power to homes and businesses.

The study follows up on an earlier report this year from the association that found nearly half of Americans are living with and breathing unhealthy air, a problem linked to the transportation sector, a leading contributor to both climate change and air pollution. More often than not, those impacts are likely to fall on counities with people of color.

“America stands to benefit from cleaner air through a transition to electric vehicles,’’ said American Lung Association CEO and president Harold Wimmer. “Electric vehicles mean zero emissions from cars, buses and trucks, translating to cleaner air and better health for all Americans.’’

NJ pitches in with zero-emission vehicles

New Jersey is one state that has embraced that approach, adopting a comprehensive program to electrify light-duty vehicles under a law approved in 2004. What’s more, New Jersey should have more than 300,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, as well as charging infrastructure around the state to ease range anxiety among drivers that their vehicles can be refueled. It also aims to have 100% of its electricity come from clean-energy sources by mid-century.

If such strategies are followed nationwide, the study found it could have a significant impact on public heath, as well as reducing air pollutants in a state widely recognized as a transportation corridor.

In New Jersey, the changeover could avoid $1.9 billion in health costs, 169 premature deaths and 2,306 asthma attacks, the study projected. Nationwide, the benefits of switching to a cleaner transportation sector could avoid 6,300 premature deaths, more than 93,000 asthma attacks and $72 billion in additional health care costs based on pollution reductions, according to the study.

No time to delay

But there is little time to waste, according to the association. “The benefits in this report are not automatic,’’ said William Barrett, lead author of the report and director of clean-air advocacy for the association. He said immediate actions are needed to curb pollution from the sector.

Barrett, however, conceded that climate change is making it more difficult to clean up pervasive air pollution. “If we don’t take actions, we won’t receive any of those benefits,’’ he said.

The report argues the move to zero-emission vehicles requires action by local, state and federal agencies to provide incentives to convince motorists to switch to cleaner-running vehicles and replace dirtier fossil-fuel plants with cleaner sources of energy, like offshore wind.

“Low-income communities and communities of color face greater exposure to transportation pollution, not just from tailpipes, but from the whole process of extraction, refining and transport of fossil fuels,’’ Wimmer said.

Moving away from fossil-fuels emissions is imperative to addressing the problem, according to the report. “Further, the transition away from burning harmful fossil fuels in noncombustible renewable energy, including wind and solar, is critical to addressing the impacts on communities most burdened by the emission generated at fossil fuels in the power plant,’’ the study found.

The benefits are clear, according to the report, and should spur action by all levels of government to speed and scale the electric-vehicle transition, especially in those communities most impacted and vulnerable to pollution.