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Decreasing vehicle emissions will reduce deaths tied to air pollution, study finds

Developing stronger emissions policies can benefit consumers’ long-term health

Vehicle emissions concept
Photo (c) James Hardy - Getty Images
As more research highlights the health risks associated with air pollution, a new study identified how efforts to lower vehicle emissions can be of great benefit to consumers’ health. 

Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that long-standing policies that work to decrease vehicle emissions may help reduce deaths that are related to air pollution. 

“Recent reductions in vehicle emissions have yielded major health benefits, even though only small progress has been made on reducing their climate impact,” said researcher Ernani Choma. “Our results indicate that to achieve further public health and climate gains, even more stringent policies will be required.”  

Lowering emissions can save lives

For the study, the researchers assessed national vehicle emissions from 2008 through 2017. They compared emissions levels with mortality rates while noting the types of cars being driven and demographic information. 

The researchers learned that deaths linked to air pollution-related vehicle emissions decreased over the course of the study. The number of related deaths in 2008 was 27,700; by 2017, that number dropped to 19,800. The team believes the decline was a result of efforts geared towards lowering vehicle emissions. They theorized that deaths in 2017 could have been as high as 48,200 if these emissions policies had never been put in place. 

Despite the progress being made across the study period, certain types of vehicles are still contributing to harmful levels of emissions. The study showed that passenger light-duty vehicles were linked to 30% more deaths related to pollution and vehicle emissions, and they were responsible for two-thirds of all health complications related to air pollution. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope tighter policies continue to be mandated across the country that prioritize lower vehicle emissions. 

“If the trends of increased population density with an aging population, and a shift to larger passenger vehicles continue, emissions, especially in urban areas, will continue to become more harmful and it will be harder to achieve further public health gains by small incremental improvements in new vehicles,” said researcher John Spengler. “Our study findings strengthen the case for policies at the municipal level that encourage electric vehicles while discouraging conventional gasoline vehicles and for making our cities more accessible for non-motorized transportation such as biking or walking.” 

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