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A Driver's Resource on Air Pollution and Vehicle Emissions

Whenever you think of air pollution, it is easy to imagine the dark black smoke from factories sending pollution into the atmosphere and air around our cities. By contrast, vehicle emissions from a single car are often unseen and seem mild compared to those emitted by a single smokestack. However, take into account the millions of vehicles on the roads throughout our nation and those seemingly insignificant sources of pollution begin to add up! Each day thousands of individuals add their share to the pollution that leads to smog alerts taking place from coast to coast due to the vehicle emissions that occur each time they drive to a destination. To control air pollution and maintain safe air quality, everyone needs to understand the source of vehicle emissions and the importance of doing everything possible to maintain and promote clean and safe air quality for future generations.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a combination of gases, fumes, chemicals, odors, and particles that when released into the air collect in amounts significant to cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment. Substances causing pollution may be primary pollutants or secondary pollutants. Primary pollutants are those things released directly into the air. These include chemicals, greenhouse gases , emissions, and gases normally found in the air if their levels exceed what is typically considered safe. Primary pollutants can under certain conditions, mix in the air and undergo changes adding to the pollution hazards. When this occurs these substances are called secondary pollutants.

Primary pollutants include gases such as carbon, nitrogen, and carbon compounds, halogen compounds including fluorides, chlorides, and bromides as well as aerosols or particulate matter in either liquid or solid form. Primary pollutants may reach lethal levels in the atmosphere such as took place in London during the winter of 1952. Secondary sources of pollution do not come directly from emissions or a specific source but form when primary air pollutants combine forming compounds hazardous at certain levels. The most heard of examples of secondary pollutants are ozone and smog. A certain type of smog identified in Los Angeles was found to occur in the summer rather than winter as with the London smog of 1952. This smog is a photochemical reaction that occurs when vehicle emissions combine with nitrogen oxides and sunlight. Photochemical smog can also contribute to acid rain affecting hundreds of miles.

What Causes Air Pollution?

While some pollutants occur naturally, the majority of pollutants leading to air pollution today are byproducts of our daily activities. The use of fossil fuels to run our vehicles, heat and cool our homes, and the production of the fuels themselves all contribute at some level to air pollution. In addition to fossil fuels, other substances and activities adding to air pollution include improper disposal of paints and solvents that allow fumes to be released into the air as well as polluting the ground and water sources. Ammonia fumes from livestock operations and a number of other chemical processes and practices including fertilizer applications also contribute to air pollution. Ground-level ozone and a combination of particular matter in either solid or liquid form often combine in major urban areas. On major urban highways, the overwhelming numbers of cars and trucks contribute to air pollution increasing dangerous smog and ozone levels. Ground-level ozone is a mixture of nitrogen oxides and VOC or volatile organic compounds that are released from auto, truck, and other fossil fuel powered vehicles. Learning to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels and redesigning vehicles to run on alternative fuel sources will go a long way to lower air pollution in and around major urban areas.

Control Air Pollution & Vehicle Emissions

Since the beginning of the Clean Air Act in 1963, research has shown vehicle emissions to be a large contributor towards air pollution. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1970 required state and federal regulations to control both industrial and vehicle emissions and granted power for reinforcing those regulations. Gas reformulation standards for vehicles and RVP or Reid vapor pressure standards to control emissions due to evaporation of gas in vehicles are some of the regulations designed to help control air pollution. Redesigning vehicles to be more fuel efficient and designing vehicles and engines that can run on alternate fuels not only control air pollution cause by vehicle emissions, but also conserve fossil fuel, lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, and decrease the overall carbon footprint that is created producing and delivering fossil fuels worldwide.

There are ways each of us can also help to control air pollution caused by vehicle emissions. A few tips to control pollution by reducing vehicle pollution on a daily basis can easily be considered. Combine errands to make as few trips as possible and consider walking or riding a bicycle when possible to decrease pollution and improve your fitness levels. Maintain your vehicle and abide by all pollution control standards and equipment such as use of a catalytic converter. Do not 'top off' your tank when refueling. Excess gas spills over, evaporates, and sends excess fumes into the air. Consider upgrading to hybrid vehicles or less polluting model of vehicle when you are ready to replace your car or truck. Doing all we can to decrease air pollution will help in cleaning up our environment and lowering the health risks associated with air pollution.

Air Pollution and Your Health

Air pollution is a serious health hazard. Normally healthy individuals may experience coughing, sneezing, and eye irritations when exposed to air pollution such as smog. For individuals already dealing with health issues such as asthma, heart disease, or chronic illness, air pollution exposure can be deadly. Some experts believe the risk of health hazards from air pollution may be understated and advise us to take the risks seriously. Three known substances in gas fumes pose health risks. These are toluene, benzene, and methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). Benzene is a major contributor to air pollution and repeated exposure weaken your nervous system, respiratory system, and immune system. Benzene is also considered carcinogenic meaning it can increase your risk of certain types of leukemia and cancers. MTBE is an additive in gasoline considered by some sources to be a weak carcinogen that may cause nausea and dizziness. Some state agencies consider toluene to be a developmental toxicant that may harm a developing fetus. Toluene is a central nervous system depressant and may increase your risk for irregular heartbeats, as well as kidney and liver damage due to toxic overload.

Legislation to Limit and Take Control of Air Pollution

Legislation to limit and take control of air pollution has continued since the first introduction of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1963. The CAA has made great strides in regulating air pollution and recommending clean air standards. However, the goals for clean air and profit, when it comes to industry, often collide as the recent decision against the EPA interstate air pollution law shows. The EPA has made several changes to the original Clean Air Act that have been successful in greatly reducing nitrous oxides and sulfur and proposed the interstate air pollution law in an effort to reduce these pollutants further and prevent them from being spread across state lines. Since its conception, there has been controversy that pollution continues to increase despite federal legislation efforts to control air pollution. While it is true that it seems we continue to breathe known hazards even after decades of revisions in the CAA, the EPA continues to press ahead in writing standards that will hold up in court when challenged by environmentalists and industries. Legislation continues with goals to reduce mercury expose, make cars more fuel efficient, and find alternative fuel sources enabling us to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Reducing air pollution is possible but it will take more than legislation to make it happen. No doubt, there will continue to be challenges to the EPA regarding the Clean Air Act and future legislation. It will take all of us becoming aware of ways we can prevent excessive vehicle emissions and take steps to reduce our daily contribution to the pollution problem.

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