The clear connection between fuels and the air we breathe

Air quality in the United States is far better than it once was: The EPA says that between 1970 (the year the agency was created, and the Clean Air Act made into law) and 2014, aggregate emissions of six common pollutants dropped by 69 percent.

But there’s still much room for improvement. Because in the U.S. and around the world, too many people are breathing air that’s dirtier than it should be:

  • The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2016 report stated that “more than half of all Americans — 166 million people — live in counties where they are exposed to unhealthy levels” of particle pollution and ground-level ozone, a key ingredient in smog.
  • The World Health Organization announced on Sept. 27 that 92 percent of people breathe unhealthy air, under WHO’s guidelines.
  • The International Energy Agency released a report blaming air pollution for 6.5 million deaths worldwide each year, “with the number set to increase significantly in coming decades unless the energy sector takes greater action to curb emissions.”

Source: IEA

Air pollution has long been linked to elevated risk of a wide range of illnesses. Last month, a German study revealed that exposure to air pollution could increase glucose intolerance, a precursor to diabetes. A study published Tuesday in an American Heart Association journal, conducted at Brigham Young University and the University of Louisville, showed how tiny particles can damage blood vessels.

Transportation is the single biggest source of air pollution in the U.S. And since the vast majority of Americans live in cities, that brown layer on the horizon you see is largely due to millions of cars and trucks, running on gasoline or diesel refined from oil. Tailpipe emissions are a toxic stew of many different compounds, including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO).

Changing the structure of the vehicle fuel we use would improve air quality. Adding more high-alcohol fuels like ethanol and methanol to the nation’s gasoline supply would reduce concentrations of NOx, CO, particulate matter, and other harmful substances.

Cities that see high temperatures during normal summers are finding that smog is only getting worse as heat records keep falling. Los Angeles just had its worst smog summer since 2009. But in other places, wintertime is just as worrying. In Salt Lake City, whose unique “inversion” brings an annual headache for citizens and tourism, air pollution has become a major concern among voters this election season.

It’s a year-round problem that isn’t going away. As a country, we’ve done a good job of cutting pollution from stationary sources, like factories and power plants. Focusing on all those millions of vehicles is much harder. But high-octane alcohol fuels can be a practical part of the solution.

Learn more on the air, water and environment section of

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1 reply
  1. George
    George says:

    It takes roughly 7 solar panels to generate the energy for the average daily American commute, that’s what we found from owning the all electric Nissan Leaf. At this point I have a hard time taking any discussion about clean air seriously, that isn’t including electric cars. I did not see a single mention above about electric vehicles.

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