WHAT VEHICLE EMISSIONS CONTRIBUTE TO POOR AIR QUALITY?
Vehicles emit both air pollutants, including ground-level ozone and fine airborne particles, as well as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOX) and sulphur oxides (SOx) and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2).
HOW DOES MY CAR CONTRIBUTE TO POOR AIR QUALITY?
Vehicles of all shapes and sizes are a leading source of emissions that contribute to air pollution in Canada. This is significant, as more than 80 per cent of Canada’s 9.3 million households have a personal vehicle. Furthermore, there are nearly 20 million passenger cars, vans, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks registered across Canada. On average, approximately four to five tonnes of emissions are produced per vehicle annually. Reducing the level of “single-occupant vehicle” use, which represents the most inefficient use of transportation energy, is one of the most cost-effective solutions to limiting the release of transportation emissions. If more people carpooled and took public transit – particularly for commuting to work – transportation emissions would be dramatically reduced.
HOW DOES POOR AIR QUALITY AFFECT US AND OUR ENVIRONMENT?
Air pollution constitutes a significant risk to human health and the environment in Canada. Particulate matter (PM) and ozone, the two major components of smog, are linked to respiratory illnesses such as chronic bronchitis and asthma, as well as to cardiac illness and premature death. Factors such as age, weight, activity level and existing health issues of individuals exposed to smog can also influence health impacts. Certain groups are more vulnerable to polluted air, including children (less than 15 years of age), the elderly (more than 65 years of age), and people with allergies, asthma or other respiratory diseases.
A 2008 study by the Canadian Medical Association, No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution, estimates that the cost of human health damages from air pollution in Canada exceeds $8 billion annually. As an individual inhales polluted air, particles can inflame and irritate the upper airways (the nose, pharynx, larynx and trachea), causing a burning sensation in the throat. In the lower respiratory tract (the bronchial airways, lungs and alveoli), inhalation of polluted air can result in difficulties in breathing and shortness of breath. Repeated exposure to polluted air can inflame lung tissues and may lead to respiratory infections. Pollutants that enter the lungs can be absorbed into the bloodstream and transported onwards throughout the body, thereby affecting not only the lungs directly, but also the heart and other organs.
In addition to air pollutants, the predominant emissions from vehicles’ tailpipes are water and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and increasing levels of it in the atmosphere are contributing to climate change. This is caused by carbon dioxide trapping energy, in the form of heat, in the atmosphere, and thereby preventing it from radiating or escaping back out toward space.
Though many of these emissions are regulated, the effectiveness of the regulations in reducing overall emissions is challenged by the increasing numbers of vehicles on our roads.
For additional information on air quality and what you can do about it, check out these other Pollution Probe materials:
- Smog Primer
- Primer on Automobile Fuel Efficiency and Emissions
- Primer on Toxic Substances
- Primer on Energy Systems in Canada
- Primer on Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- Driving Towards a Cleaner Environment – A Healthier Future
 Comprehensive Air Management System (CAMS) Steering Committee (2010). Comprehensive Air Management System: A Proposed Framework to Improve Air Quality Management. Online: http://www.ccme.ca/assets/pdf/cams_proposed_framework_e.pdf