HEI identifies potential health risks from new vehicle technologies
14 March 2011
The Special Committee on Emerging Technologies (SCET) of the Health Effects Institute (HEI) released a report—“The Future of Vehicle Fuels and Technologies: Anticipating Health Benefits and Challenges”—that identifies a number of potential unintended health consequences that could arise from new vehicle fuels and technologies and need investigation. Based on the findings of the report, HEI’s Research Committee has formulated an action plan to address the identified health issues.
The new SCET report reviews a host of new technologies and fuels, from improved internal combustion engines, to hybrid and other electric drive technologies, to existing and new bio- and other types of fuels. The report contains a number of detailed findings, chief among them:
Internal combustion gasoline and diesel engines, improved for efficiency and emissions, are likely to continue to play a major role for at least the next 10 years in the transportation sector. At the same time SCET finds that
- New direct injection gasoline technology offers improvements in fuel economy, but may increase emissions of ultrafine particles that could cause health effects.
- Selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides from fuel-efficient diesel engines, but may increase emissions of some potentially harmful nitrogen compounds.
Large volumes of ethanol and potentially other biofuels are and will be entering the market over the next decade in response to government mandates.
- SCET identifies increased emissions of aldehydes and other compounds, with potential health effects, that could increase population exposure. SCET also notes that there is controversy about the broader environmental impacts from the use of such fuels.
There is increased development and use of a number of fuels from unconventional sources such as tar sands, oil shale, and coal.
- Fuels from such sources may have different fuel formulations and emissions characteristics; they also pose a number of broader environmental questions.
SCET describes major developments in hybrid, all-electric drive, and fuel cell technologies, likely to see substantial market penetration by the end of this decade. These technologies promise zero or near zero emissions at the vehicle, but SCET identified three areas for potential attention:
- Potential increased in-vehicle exposure to low-level electro-magnetic fields (EMF).
- Potential increased exposure in the battery lifecycle—from extraction to production to use/accidents to disposal—to lithium, other metals, and battery chemical solutions.
- Displaced emissions of conventional pollutants at electric power plants which, if not controlled, could increase population exposure.
In response to these findings, the HEI Research Committee has issued an Action Plan for investigations underway or soon to begin. These include:
- An expert panel launched to sift through emissions, exposure, and health data on ultrafine particles and determine whether emissions from new technologies may pose a hazard.
- HEI’s Advanced Collaborative Engine Study (or ACES) is applying comprehensive emissions characterization of modern heavy duty diesel engines equipped with the latest SCR technology to determine whether key nitrogen compounds and exposure are increased.
- An expert workshop convened this fall of all current emissions tests of ethanol, biodiesel, and other biofuels to determine changes in emissions and population exposure.
HEI’s scientists will also conduct searches and initial reviews of the science literature on:
- EMF emissions and potential effects.
- Toxicity of lithium and other battery components.
- The National Particle Component Toxicity Initiative (NPACT), HEI’s comprehensive effort to understand the effects of power plant, traffic, and other emissions, will be completed this year, offering answers on the potential effects of displaced emissions.
SCET—co-chaired by Tina Vujovich (formerly of Cummins) and Alan Lloyd (President of the International Council on Clean Transportation and former Secretary of the California EPA)—includes leading national and international experts from government, industry, academia, and the non-profit sector. HEI intends to re-convene SCET in about 18 months to update its assessments and its advice to HEI about the status of the various fuels and technologies and emerging issues and concerns.