The hazards ushered by air quality degradation cannot be exaggerated: the air we inhale can potentially have a disastrous impact on our health, beginning right from birth. 

The advantages of shifting to alternative fuels, such as electric cars, to clear away our polluted air have received much attention. 

On the contrary, the finding demonstrates that electric automobiles still release PM 2.5 particulates, the most dangerous air contamination type for people. 

The idea that electric cars can cause a radical shift in PM levels is challenged by new scientific research on PM10 and PM 2.5 pollution.

Countless research has connected particulate matter (PM) inhalation to adverse health impacts. As a result, authorities have aggressively subsidized the changeover to electric passenger vehicles to minimize pollution. 

According to a leading environmental health expert, it is estimated that by 2020, emissions from brake pedals and tire wear might outnumber all other types of transport-related particulate emissions.

PM refers to nanoparticles of various microscopic diameters, which might even pierce the respiratory organs or reach the circulation system. 

Several contain metals that can also travel to the brain and contribute to the growth of neurological problems. 

Thus far, nitrogen oxide emissions seem to be the primary priority of media coverage, with electric vehicles touted as a raging solution. 

But, research does not consider electric vehicles as the silver bullet to minimize particle pollution.

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Electric Cars: Are they any good at promoting air quality?

Comparison_between_gasoline_grid charged_and_renewable_charged_vehicles_on_harmful_particles_emissions
Comparison between gasoline, grid charged, and renewable vehicles on harmful particles emissions showing gasoline-based and grid-based cars emitting the same amount of PM2.5 particles | Image by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Electric automobiles are a viable alternative to several of their traditional equivalents’ detrimental consequences. 

Individuals, corporations, and authorities are increasingly supportive of electric cars, owing to their ability to decrease local emissions of greenhouse gasses, leading to a rise in the proportion of new electric auto sales around the globe.

Increased efficiency: Electric vehicles use around 12% less fuel to commute the same journey than gasoline-powered internal combustion units. 

Domestically sourced energy: Approximately half of the gasoline used in most parts of the world is imported from overseas, whereas electricity is almost exclusively generated from local production and territory.

Minimized Fueling Cost: Electric cars can drive the same mileage as a conventional car at $0.95 per gallon due to the superior cost-efficiency of electric energy per unit of energy compared to fossil fuels.

Electric vehicle usage has grown due to technological advancements that increase productivity, lower expenses, and government backing. 

Electricity generating commitments made by several governments and significant cities worldwide suggest that electric car adoption will keep rising in the upcoming days. But how beneficial is this transition to the ecosystem?

Electric Cars and PM 2.5

Graph_showing_pm_2.5_particle_emission_by_various_vehicles_categorized by_energy_sources
PM 2.5 emissions by various vehicles categorized by energy sources | Research by Cuellar et al., 2016

Non-exhaust pollution accounts for a significant portion of traffic-generated PM10 and PM 2.5 (50-85 percent and up to 90 percent) due to brake wear, road wear, tire wear, and road dust resuspension. The reality is more complicated when it comes to non-exhaust pollutants.

Across all vehicle categories, electric vehicles are predicted to release 5-19% less PM10 through non-exhaust components per kilometer than internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). On the other hand, EVs do not always release less PM 2.5 than ICEVs. 

Although lightweight EVs produce 11-13 percent less PM 2.5 than ICEV counterparts, bulkier EVs release 3-8 percent more PM, 2.5 times that of ICEVs.

When Van Zeebroek and De Ceuster assessed the weight of 20 small electric cars to the average body weight of classic cars in the same automobile group, they discovered that electric vehicles are 22 percent heavier than regular fuel-powered cars.

Electric cars are heavier than standard cars in terms of tire emissions, which, per some estimates, worsens tire wear and consequently contributes to particle emissions. 

On the other hand, electric vehicles are typically equipped with advanced tires intended to handle the additional weight of batteries and assure that they do not wear out prematurely. 

More research is needed to assess particulate pollution from tires, particularly electric vehicles. 

However, it would be uncontroversial to say that tire pollution is caused by all road vehicles, even large SUVs, whether electronic or fuel-driven.

On the other hand, the answer for tire/road-surface deterioration has gotten significantly less interest and will necessitate detailed investigation into the impact of tire formula and road-surface structure as well as roughness on particle formation and combustion.

On the brighter side, road-surface cleaning studies have indicated a significant reduction in dispersed dust particles. 

Dust-suppressing films, such as calcium magnesium acetate, have also been tried to adhere particulates to the road surface. 

But, their effectiveness has been constrained to date. As a result, answers to the problem of dust dispersion are still excessively tricky.

Just how dangerous is particle pollution?

Both PM10 and PM 2.5 pollutants can cause health problems if they enter the human body, developing after short-term or long-term inhalation. 

Respiratory and cardiac disease, such as bronchitis, as well as fatalities from cardio-respiratory disorders, such as, as well as lung cancer, are significant health issues resulting from exposure. 

The World Health Organization assessment informed that PM 2.5 particles pose a higher death threat than PM10 molecules. Furthermore, over 7 million people worldwide die yearly from tiny particles in contaminated air.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to toughen up the PM legislation was briefly discussed by Treehugger, highlighting the health risks. 

However, the OECD warns that PM emissions from vehicle movements might worsen health problems more than those from other origins, such as coal combustion. 

And although it might sound unbelievable, it is true because these emissions are clustered in areas with the highest population size and traffic. 

Exposure to atmospheric PM has been classified as the seventh most prominent cause of preventable death, leading to an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2015.

They are not just carbon atoms; they also contain harmful metals and other elements. Certain elements, such as iron, copper, zinc, and sulfur, have also been linked to health problems such as cardio-pulmonary oxidative stress, heart-rate fluctuation, and tissue destruction.

The oxidative damage caused by metals and organic chemicals prevalent in PM emissions is one of the critical biological mechanisms behind these unfavorable health effects. 

According to a recent study, air pollution aggravates coronavirus infections like SARS and Covid-19. However, the results are most remarkable in metropolitan areas, where particulate emissions are maximum, owing to traffic congestion. 

PM 2.5 regulations

How do PM 2.5 particles affect human health? Copyright: Smart Air

Even as global pollution rules for exhaust nanoparticles from motorized vehicles become increasingly strict, non-exhaust PM concentrations are generally unrestricted. 

As an outcome of the notable contractions in PM from exhaust fumes over this timeframe, the fraction of PM emissions from non-exhaust systems has risen dramatically in recent years.

In the subsequent years, non-exhaust pollutants are predicted to account for a greater bulk of PM 2.5 emissions from motorized and electrical vehicles.

As a result, authorities trying to minimize non-exhaust PM 2.5 emissions from road transportation should contemplate broad support for electric vehicles. 

Alternatively, they should implement more complex indicators centered on the non-exhaust emissions rather than the vehicle’s engine.

The allegations that electric cars produce more significant particle pollution from their tires are not entirely false. 

It would also not be competent to neglect the overall benefits of improved air quality while discouraging fuel industries. 

Particle dispersion cannot be used to justify delaying the changeover to zero-emission transportation. 

But, manufacturers should reconsider the technology and design for more environmentally-friendly electric cars.

Electric cars will not fix our air quality index and congestion issues; they will still be the reason for the demise of a significant number of people, notably when all the big pickups and SUVs strike the roads.

We now see they do not entirely lower pollution in cities appreciably even though many countries have promoted EV-friendly transportation measures. 

Perhaps it is time to think about other options of getting cars off the road, whether electric or flue-driven, and making a genuine contribution to the air quality. 

(Last Updated on December 1, 2023 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Shradha Bhatta holds a Bachelors’s Degree in Social Work along with a Post-graduate degree in Project Management from Georgian College in Canada. Shradha enjoys writing on a variety of topics and takes pleasure in discovering new ideas. She likes traveling and spending time with nature. She is a very people-person who loves talking about climate change and alerting people to go green!