Both unhealthy diet choices and motor vehicles are responsible for an enormous number of health problems in the western world (link). Looking beyond the climate, we see a variety of impacts from other gases, which cause health problems for all of us. Like climate-changing gases, these cause harm throughout the various populations of our planet. The larger source of pollution, not surprisingly, is from autos and other combustion vehicles. One study found that 50,000 U.S. deaths can be attributed to roadway pollution, while another estimates over 200,000. I’ll touch on just a few of the specific gases below, but you can see a larger list here.
This colourless and odourless gas is a product of burning fossil fuels and interrupts our lungs’ ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body. The two areas where people are most in danger are poorly vented rooms with combustion appliances, and vehicles with blocked exhaust. (link) While it’s rare for someone to be killed accidentally, lower levels can cause serious harm over time. (link) London has recently been making headlines in the study of urban pollution due to it’s position as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. This is partly caused by the fact that 2/3 of the autos are emitting illegal levels of carbon dioxide. (link)
The most common source of carbon monoxide exposure is motor vehicle exhaust. 77% of the nationwide CO emissions are from transportation sources.”
Centre for Environmental Mgmt. & Control
Not many people are aware of Benzene which is a short-lived toxic gas found in car exhaust and 2nd hand smoke. (link) It’s a well-established carcinogen and even in small amounts it can irritate the skin and eyes. Samples show that it’s found at higher levels inside of a car then in samples taken elsewhere in a neighbourhood. (link) In fact, the highest levels are found at gas stations and refineries. Thankfully, the U.S. EPA has finally taken steps to tighten restrictions on the levels allowed into the air. (link)
Hydrogen Sulfide is caused by the continuously increasing population of livestock being bred by ranchers. It’s mainly produced when animal waste is concentrated in giant waste lagoons as a result of factory farming. Hydrogen sulfide is harmful, even at low levels, and causes damage to the nervous system and respiratory system. The gas is mainly concentrated at the source, however elevated levels have been found among the homes of people living downwind from factory farms. (link)
Factory farm workers routinely inhale hazardous levels of particulate matter as well as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases. Individually, each of these components is capable of causing severe health complications; however, it is their collective effect that is most harmful....”
The Food Empowerment Project
Image from 'SpaceBalls' by Mel Brooks
If you grew up in a dense city (like I did) you learned early about smog alerts. Ozone, which is one component of smog, is considered the most widespread air pollutant in urban environments. It’s created by traffic, power plants, and industry. Breathing high amounts causes a wide range of health problems. (link) According to the American Lung Association, nearly half of the U.S. population (147 million people) lives in counties with unhealthy air quality. (link) The U.S. EPA estimates that reducing ground level ozone by 10 parts-per-billion could prevent 1700-5000 premature deaths per year as well as reducing childhood asthma. (link)
It’s easy to confuse Nitrogen Dioxide with Nitrous oxide. However ‘nitro’ (sometimes called ‘laughing gas) is only a mild toxin and unlikely to be deadly. Nitrogen Dioxide, on the other hand, causes severe harm to the lungs. (link) Caused mainly by burning gasoline, this colourless gas is more dangerous than anything found in cigarettes. It can also bond with other elements in the air to form particulate matter (see below). What makes this element so scary is that the numbers for how much pollution is being produced by the world’s cars is wildly understated. (link) The recent news around Volkswagen’s pollution rigging has only shined a spotlight on a long existing scandal. Throughout Northern Europe, residents are waking up to the severe dangers which are caused by auto exhaust. (link)
Most deadly pollution can't be seen. It can't be tasted or smelled. But the effects are no less tragic because of it.”
Particulate matter (PM) is microscopic pollution produced by not only road exhaust, but also by industry, and factory farms. As the amount of small particles in the air rises, even from low levels, there is a direct link to damage to the lungs, heart and circulatory system. Many people exposed run an increased risk of cardiovascular harm and lung cancer. For others, symptoms for existing diseases like bronchitis and asthma become dangerously severe. People living in areas with high concentrations of particulate matter are believed to have a greatly reduced life expectancy. (link)
Children endure the highest risk because their lungs are still developing, which contributes to a host of breathing problems later in life. City residents who live closer to high traffic areas are found to have poor concentration, and less reliable memory recall then people living in cleaner air. (link) This may be connected to studies showing that people who breathe in more of this pollution tend to have brains that ‘age faster.’ (link) (link) The risk from these pollutants has caused France to enact tough laws limiting the number of cars entering Paris in order to reduce the damage from pollution.
[children who grow up breathing polluted air] scored more poorly on intelligence tests and were more prone to depression, anxiety and attention problems....children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a major road or freeway in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Sacramento were twice as likely to have autism, independent of gender, ethnicity and education level.”
Epidemiologist Heather Volk at USC’s Keck School of Medicine)
According to the Center for Disease Control, “All cigarettes are harmful, and all exposure to tobacco smoke causes damage within the body. There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.” However most of the same chemicals from second-hand smoke are also given off by autos and agriculture. According to The National Cancer Institute, there are at least 69 cancer- causing gases in cigarette smoke including several listed specifically on their website. As you can see from the table below, eight of the 12 chemicals listed are also found either in car exhaust or near livestock farms. This ties in perfectly with research proving that car companies have been using the same deceptive tactics to retain customers as cigarette companies have. The good news is that reducing or eliminating animal products from our diet can help our bodies reverse the negative effects caused by pollution.
|Chemical||Where it's Found||Danger Level||Source|
|Ethyl Oxide||car exhaust/antifreeze||low||link|
|Vinyl Chloride||car upholstery||small||link|
I have heard many people actually use pollution to justify the use of their automobile as protection from both the noise and the smell of roadways in the belief that the car’s shell will keep them safe. While there are some limited benefits (such as being able to escape a polluted area quickly), more often then not the environment inside of a car is actually more harmful. Data from several studies point out that the high concentration of pollutants, especially when starting an engine and idling does extensive harm to the body. (link) (link)
In one New Zealand study, it was found that drivers are exposed to 60% more Carbon Monoxide then cyclists. Meanwhile definitive research has shown that the physical exercise from traveling by bicycle far outweighs the danger from inhaled pollution (read more here). As this and other studies show, the more people choose active transportation, the less pollution will be thrown into the air, and the better we can all breathe.
When people view highways as rivers of toxic air.... rather than as simply regional polluters, resistance to road projects and demand for protection from existing highways will dramatically increase.”
I included this section for you, dear reader, to point out that there are more issues facing us then just greenhouse gases. Are the effects of greenhouse gases less harmful or more harmful then the pollution in our cities? To those who suffer the effects of these pollutants, they are both hugely important. What I encourage you to take away from this essay, is that making choices which cause less impact benefits everyone. Not just you yourself, but your children, your parents, your friends, your spouse...everyone wins with less pollution and healthier lifestyle choices. This is what makes me feel great about enjoying both a car-free lifestyle and a vegan diet.