Electric Cars Good For Green, Bad For Health?

Can electric cars, which are touted for lowering greenhouse gases and producing less emissions than gasoline-fueled cars, be bad for people’s health? In China, apparently so. Findings from University of Tennessee, Knoxville study showed that electric cars in China have an overall impact on pollution that could be more harmful to health than gasoline vehicles.

Researchers analyzed the emissions and environmental health impacts of five vehicle technologies in 34 major Chinese cities. They focused specifically on dangerous fine particles which includes: acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. Those particles are also generated through the combustion of fossil fuels.

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For electric vehicles, combustion emissions occur where electricity is generated, not where the vehicle is used. Since 85 percent of electricity in China comes from fossil fuels – nearly all from coal – the power generated in China to operate electric vehicles emits these fine particles at a higher rate than gasoline cars. Researchers concluded that in terms of air pollution impact, electric cars are more harmful to public health per kilometer travelled in China than conventional vehicles.

“The study emphasizes that electric vehicles are attractive if they are powered by a clean energy source,” Chris Cherry assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering said in a statement.”In China and elsewhere, it is important to focus on deploying electric vehicles in cities with cleaner electricity generation and focusing on improving emissions controls in higher polluting power sectors.”

The researchers measured health impacts in China using gasoline and diesel cars, diesel buses, e-bikes and e-cars. They then calculated the proportion of emissions inhaled by the population. They found that e-cars’ impact was lower than diesel cars, but equal to diesel buses. E-bikes provided the lowest environmental health impacts per passenger per kilometer. E-bikes in China are the single largest adoption of alternative fuel vehicles in history, with over 100 million vehicles purchased in the past decade, more than all other countries combined.

Kristy Hessman is a writer and native Oregonian who currently resides in California. Before starting her own company, she worked as a reporter covering business and politics for daily newspapers and The Associated Press.