Surprise! Electric cars are already making California healthier

From the “duh” department, California is already becoming more healthy because of electric car penetration, which has resulted in cleaner air in areas where electric cars are more prevalent, according to a new study.

The study was published last week by the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. It tracked real-world pollution levels, electric car penetration, and emergency room visits across California between 2013 and 2019, and controlled against overall improvements in California air quality during the study period.

Completely unsurprisingly, the study found that clean air vehicles actually resulted in clean air, with the benefits being stronger in areas where there were more of them. Amazing. Who knew.

Each increase of 20 cars per 1,000 people (which is roughly equivalent to 2% of cars – since CA has 840 cars per 1,000 people) was associated with a .41ppb (parts per billion) drop in nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. California law sets average NOx standards at 30ppb, so a drop of .41 is a pretty big chunk, especially when compared to just 2% of EV penetration.

It stands to reason that taking gas cars off the road would reduce NOx, because nitrogen dioxide is a form of pollution particularly associated with vehicle tailpipes, and is the major contributor to the formation of smog, with a variety of negative health effects.

For one example, worldwide, vehicle traffic specifically is responsible for 4 million new cases of childhood asthma per year. And air pollution is responsible for 100,000-200,000 deaths in the US per year, the largest chunk of which is caused by vehicle pollution.

And so the study checked to see if areas with higher EV peneration, and lower NOx, would also have fewer problems with asthma, and whaddayaknow, they did!

Every 20 electric cars per 1,000 Californians in a particular zip code was associated with a 3.2% decline in asthma-related emergency department visits.

And since emergency room visits are extremely expensive in the American healthcare system, it stands to reason that any drop in ER visits would also reduce health costs. This is relevant even for those who do not suffer from asthma, due to pooling of costs through health insurance.

The cost benefits of better public health are not always focused on, but should be relevant here. The study did not focus on these, but other studies have. For example, IMF estimates that fossil fuels are responsible for $5.3 trillion globally in health and environmental costs every year, and any reduction in fossil fuel pollution would stand to reduce this number.

And the best part of these results is that they happened rapidly, only over a few years, and with only low numbers of EV penetration. The study period only tracked 2013 to 2019, where the installed base of EVs across California rose from a tiny 1.4 to a still-modest 14.7 cars per 1,000, and yet the study still found these significant benefits even with a small number of EVs.

And those numbers are still growing. EVs made up 8% of the new car market in California in 2019, but that number is up to 17% now. Surely, if the study were to incorporate new data, the health benefits of clean air vehicles would continue improving. And on the longer term, the benefits of avoiding climate change will be tremendous.

But the benefits of cleaner air haven’t been equally distributed. The study’s zip code-level analysis showed that areas with fewer electric cars also tended to be poorer areas. This is a problem because these are the areas which tend to suffer more negative health effects of pollution anyway.

The average electric car does cost more than the average gas car… but that’s because the average electric car is a Tesla, as Tesla owns ~70% of the EV market. The cheapest electric car, the Chevy Bolt, can also be the cheapest car of any type in California, as long as you can qualify for all available federal, state and regional incentives – and buy it before March, when it’s expected to lose half of its federal EV tax credit (if you’re looking for a Bolt, feel free to use our link to search local dealers).

Nevertheless, there are other difficulties with getting electric cars into poorer areas – poorer people tend to buy more used cars than new, tend to have more difficulty fronting upfront costs which can be higher with EVs while running costs are lower, and may not have access to their own off-street parking, as street parking does make EV ownership less easy.

There are solutions to some of these problems – for example, apartments and HOAs in California already cannot stop residents from installing EV chargers, and the Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits for used EVs – but more work needs to be done to distribute the health gains from electric cars more equally. Or even better, we can leapfrog the whole concept of private car ownership and build better public transportation, which is a particular problem in California’s most populous areas and can provide disproportionate benefits for poorer communities.

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