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Electric cars cause significant fall in asthma hospital admissions, first-of-its-kind US study shows

Electric vehicles are not only good for the environment but also for your lungs, a study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Southern California found a three percent drop in asthma-related emergency visits for every two percent jump in the number of electric vehicles in each zip code.

There was also a correlation between an increase in electric cars and a lower prevalence of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful chemical in the environment linked to childhood asthma and other lung conditions. 

It is the first real-world study in America to show the health benefits of trading a standard, combustible engine car for an electric vehicle. 

But questions remain about the viability of a large-scale move to electric cars – which currently have high upfront cost, limited range, and a host of infrastructure and energy problems associated with powering them.

Asthma is a chronic respiratory illness that affects over 23 million Americans, about five million of whom are children

Even more alarmingly, a report in the journal Nature suggests that because electric cars are heavier than other vehicles, they will likely kill more occupants of other vehicles in traffic accidents.

Air pollution from regular cars can worsen asthma – a serious and life-threatening chronic respiratory disease that affects the quality of life of more than 23million Americans 

The tiny toxic airborne particles in exhaust fumes irritate the airways, making them swell and tighten up. 

The USC team considered the effects of EV usage at a neighborhood level, zeroing in on vehicle registrations, air pollution levels, and asthma-related emergency room visits there. 

The team’s findings were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. 

They relied on publicly available vehicle registration data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and looked at all registered zero-emission vehicles.

These include battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen fuel cell cars registered in each zip code for every year between 2013 and 2019.

They also obtained data regarding nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in the air from the US Environmental Protection Agency and zip code-level asthma-related emergency room visits. 

The decline in NO2 was modest though notable, with a − 0.41 parts-per-billion change in annual average. 

Dr Erika Garcia, a public health expert at USC’s and the study’s lead author said: ‘When we think about the actions related to climate change, often it’s on a global level.

‘But the idea that changes being made at the local level can improve the health of your own community could be a powerful message to the public and to policy makers.’

The transition to electric vehicles has picked up speed in recent years due to more advanced technology as more people recognize the damage that diesel emissions inflict on the environment. 

Overall, EV use in California increased precipitously from 1.4 per 1,000 in 2013 to 14.6 per 1,000 in 2019.

But the benefits of switching to an EV are largely felt by the wealthy and well-educated, many of whom purchase electric vehicles as their second car rather than replacing the one the already have.

Adoption of zero-emissions vehicles was significantly lower in zip codes with lower levels of educational attainment, which researchers call the adoption gap.

Lower-income neighborhoods also tend to face worse pollution and associated respiratory problems than more affluent areas.

The authors say this signifies a need to bolster efforts to make energy-efficient technology and clean energy reforms more accessible, especially to traditionally disenfranchised populations. 

Dr Garcia said: ‘Should continuing research support our findings, we want to make sure that those communities that are overburdened with the traffic-related air pollution are truly benefiting from this climate mitigation effort.’

At the zip code level, for every additional 20 EVs per 1,000 people, there was a 3.2 percent drop in the rate of asthma-related emergency visits and a small reduction in NO2 levels

At the zip code level, for every additional 20 EVs per 1,000 people, there was a 3.2 percent drop in the rate of asthma-related emergency visits and a small reduction in NO2 levels

There is a steep human cost associated with electric cars, though. 

Big tech companies rely on the energy-dense metal cobalt to manufacture the EV batteries composed of thousands of individual lithium-ion cells. 

The chief global supplier of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where roughly 40,000 children as young as three learn to mine for the metal for about $2 a day. 

Meanwhile, the global demand for lithium has exploded – leading to increased mining in the US and elsewhere. Mining does not have a tiny carbon footprint, either. 

The extraction process contributes to an increase in carbon dioxide and other atmospheric greenhouse gases. It also requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, which jeopardizes irrigation and farming systems. Mining waste also pollutes rivers and groundwater sources. 


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