BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo
SALT LAKE CITY — A transition to electric cars would save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars in public health benefits in Utah, according to a report by the American Lung Association.
The report, released on Wednesday states a nationwide transition to clean, zero-emission vehicles would have a “dramatic” impact on the air quality and health of Utahns.
“Air pollution is a known risk factor for lung cancer,” said Nick Torres, advocacy director for the American Lung Association. “The transportation sector is a leading source of air pollution and the nation’s biggest source of carbon pollution.”
Torres said air pollution is driving climate change and its associated public health harms and added exhaust from diesel and gasoline powered engines contributes to both ozone and particle pollution, two of the most widespread and dangerous pollutants.
“Breathing these pollutants can cause asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular harm, and even early death,” he said. “Breathing particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.”
BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo
The World Health Organization classified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen in 2012, Torres said. Nationally, the ALA’s 2021 State of the Air report finds more than 4 in 10 people, or 135 million in the United States live in counties with polluted air, and people of color are 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people.
In Utah, the 2021 State of the Air report found Salt Lake and Cache counties ranked among the 25 counties most polluted by ozone nationwide. Provo was listed as one of the top cities in Utah to have excess ozone pollution.
Torres said more than 45 million people nationally live within 300 feet of major transportation infrastructure such as a busy roadway.
“Breathing ozone pollution and particle pollution is unhealthy for everyone, but certain populations are more vulnerable to health harms,” he said. “These populations include children, older adults, individuals with lung disease and other preexisting health conditions, pregnant people, people with low incomes and individuals who work and exercise outside.”
Torres said too many communities across the U.S. deal with high levels of dangerous pollution from nearby highways and trucking corridors, ports and warehouses, and other pollution hot spots. Low-income communities and many communities of color, he added, too often bear disproportionate health burdens from air pollution broadly, and transportation pollution specifically. Residents of communities located in freight and transportation hubs see thousands of heavy-duty trucks traverse their neighborhoods.
The report shows a widespread national transition to electric vehicles would generate more than $1.2 trillion in health benefits and $1.7 trillion in additional climate benefits by 2050. In Utah, the transition reportedly would generate $5.7 billion in public health benefits and result in up to 506 avoided deaths, 26,100 avoided asthma attacks and 94,300 avoidable lost work days.
“As consumer demand continues to climb and fleets phase in more and more zero-emission vehicles, the up-front costs are coming down,” Torres said. “The overall cost of ownership of zero-emission vehicles is going to involve far less investment in fluctuating fuel prices, maintenance, oil changes, emissions control maintenance and other costs than a diesel truck or even a gasoline car.”
“Zero-emission” is an inclusive term that includes electric vehicles, battery electric vehicles, hydrogen electric vehicles, as well as all other nonpolluting vehicles, Torres said. From passenger vehicles to delivery vehicles, semis and other heavy-duty trucks, major manufacturers are touting their new zero-emission vehicles. The vehicles’ specifications and infrastructure needs vary by type of vehicle and manufacturer.
“What’s clear is that a transition to zero-emission vehicles will improve our air, help avoid the negative impacts of climate change, and save tens of thousands of lives in communities across America,” he said. “But obviously new car purchases are not in reach for many families. Low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution from transportation.”
There are programs that can support replacement of older vehicles with cleaner vehicles — the ALA calls for incentive programs to provide greater support for lower-income consumers, for example, Torres said.
The ALA is calling on policymakers at all levels to act urgently to implement policies that invest in the transition to zero-emission vehicles and clean, noncombustion renewable energy. There are many new policy changes in motion that could assist Utah with the transition to zero-emission vehicles, Torres said.
“At the federal level, the EPA’s new Clean School Bus Program will provide billions of dollars to help schools replace their school bus fleets with zero-emission models. Parents should encourage their local school leaders to make this a priority,” he said.
One recent policy signed into law at the state level in Utah was Senate Bill 136, which requires the Department of Environmental Quality to study and make recommendations on a diesel emissions reduction plan framework. According to advocates, a focus on health equity and environmental justice must drive policy to protect communities that bear the greatest burden from transportation pollution.
“The technologies and systems are in place to make lifesaving changes to the transportation and electricity generation sectors if our leaders act,” Torres said.
The American Lung Association is asking the public to sign a petition calling for more rapid transition to zero-emission vehicles and energy at lung.org/EV.