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A Guide to Vehicle Emissions and Pollutants

by Stacey Papp

Truck and Vehicle Emissions Pollutants
Proper fleet vehicle maintenance is the key to reducing emissions, saving fuel and cutting fleet vehicle expenses.

In the U.S., motor vehicles are a common, expected, and normal part of daily life. In most households, families have at least one vehicle and often more, depending on the number of adults who are of driving age. Cars, trucks, and other vehicles typically run on gasoline or diesel, fuels that release harmful chemicals in the air. These emissions can create a multitude of problems, including health issues and environmental degradation due to pollution. To reduce these emissions and the problems that they create, it is important to understand what they are and what can be done about them.

There are different types of emissions that can come from a car or other type of vehicle. These emissions are pollutants in the form of fumes, vapors, or even particles that come from the exhaust of a car. They are created when there is incomplete combustion of a car's gasoline. There are several different types of emissions that may be released from vehicles to pollute the air. These emissions include sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons. These pollutants can be dangerous and often have a negative effect on the environment and/or on one's health.

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Gases that react to other types of gases in the air are called nitrogen oxides. These compounds are a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen and are odorless and colorless. The burning of fuels at high temperatures during the combustion process causes the formation of this type of pollutant. The inhalation of these gases can cause damage to the lungs. Environmentally, nitrogen oxides can cause smog and acid rain and deteriorate the quality of water.

When fuel carbons fail to burn completely, carbon monoxide (CO) is formed. This is a pollutant that people are familiar with, and it is released overwhelmingly by vehicles. It is colorless and has no odor. Carbon monoxide can cause health problems by preventing the transportation of oxygen through the body. This limits or prevents oxygen to crucial areas such as the brain and heart and can result in death. Vehicle emissions also include carbon dioxide, which can damage the environment by contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

When molecules in fuel burn partially or fail to burn at all, hydrocarbons are released. They react with nitrogen oxides and contribute to the formation of smog. Smog is harmful to humans in that it causes respiratory illnesses, and it may also be a cause of cancer. And the burning of fuels that contain sulfur, such as diesel, creates sulfur dioxide (SO2). Breathing sulfur dioxide can be harmful to people with asthma or other respiratory problems, and it is also hazardous to children.

How to reduce vehicle emissions

There are a variety of solutions that people can choose from in order to reduce air pollution. One is to look for vehicles that have a higher gas mileage rating. This will reduce the use of gasoline per mile that the car travels. Vehicles that run on alternative energy are another major solution that people can turn to. This includes biodiesel cars, which run on vegetable oil. Biodiesel cars produce less carbon monoxide and particulate emissions than gasoline-powered cars, although they produce about the same amount of emissions of nitrogen oxides. Hydrogen-powered cars are another form of cleaner transportation due to the fact that the exhaust from hydrogen-powered cars is purely water. Along with hydrogen-powered cars, electric cars are also one of the cleanest forms of transportation, as they produce no emissions at all. Electric cars can also be fitted with solar panels that use the sun to recharge the batteries, reducing the need for access to an external power source.

To preserve the health of the environment and humans alike, it is important to control and, ideally, eliminate hazardous vehicle emissions. This means moving away from traditional fuels such as gasoline. Fortunately, there are alternatives that are bringing this closer to reality. New cars and car technology will allow people to have the desired mobility without damaging the environment or negatively affecting their health.

Fleet emission reduction resources

For more information about vehicle emissions and pollution, click on the following links to read more:

  • Vehicle Emissions: Read about the difference between exhaust and evaporative emissions. The page also includes charts about emission rates. Car and truck emissions are also compared.
  • Vehicle Emissions: Learn about ideal, lean, and rich conditions that lead to vehicle emissions. Also on the page, there is a list of pollutants that come from car exhaust, including hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide.
  • Automobile Emissions: Click this link to review sources of auto emissions and the combustion process. The page also includes four pollutants from vehicle emissions.
  • About Green Vehicles: Read this page to learn what makes vehicles green. Conventional and alternative fuels and cars are discussed.
  • Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles: The Alternative Fuels Data Center is a part of the U.S. Department of Energy website. This page lists different fuel types, including biodiesel, electricity, and ethanol. Click on the animated gas pumps to read more about each alternative fuel.
  • All-Electric Vehicles (EVs): The FuelEconomy.gov website discusses all-electric vehicles (EVs). Information in the form of performance benefits and energy efficiency is discussed.
  • Auto Emissions and the Environment: A PBS Now article about automotive emissions discusses the Clean Air Act of 1970. Electric and hybrid vehicles are also included in the article.
  • How Do Carbon Emissions Affect the Environment?: A Discovery article looks at how carbon emissions affect the environment. The page also reviews control and regulations by the government.
  • Cars, Trucks, and Air Pollution: The Union of Concerned Scientists website examines air pollution ingredients that come from vehicles.
  • Motor Vehicle Emissions & Air Pollution: Click here to learn abut ozone and carbon monoxide.
  • Hybrid Cars: Where Do They Perform Most Efficiently?: A BBC article looks at a study of which parts of the world could most benefit from the use of hybrid vehicles based on driving conditions.
  • Vehicle Emissions: This page for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality covers vehicle emissions and their impact on health and the environment. Learn how to lessen these emissions.
  • Will Electric Vehicles Reduce Pollution?: An article from Ohio State explores whether electric vehicles can reduce pollution in the air.
  • Purchasing Guide: Vehicles: Readers can educate themselves on what they should look for when purchasing a new vehicle that is better for the environment.
  • Buying an Eco-Friendly Car: The pros and cons of various car and fuel types are examined.
  • Carbon Monoxide: Review this air quality fact sheet from the Australian government website to learn what carbon monoxide is and how it affects humans.
  • Sulfur Dioxide: Click this link to learn about sulfur dioxide and where it comes from. Readers will also learn how it affects heath and what can be done to reduce it.
  • Asthma and Air Pollution: The Natural Resources Defense Council discusses asthma and air pollution.
  • Health Effects: Pollutants, including auto emissions, are reviewed on this page along with their health impacts.
  • Controlling Air Pollution from Motor Vehicles: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation discusses the effects of motor vehicle pollution.
  • Cars and Trucks and Air Pollution: Read over the ingredients of air pollution that come from cars and trucks.
  • Solar-Powered Cars: In addition to the benefits of solar-powered cars, this article also discusses drawbacks and energy savings.
  • Alternate Energy Cars (PDF): This document reviews potential alternative energy cars. The cars discussed include electric and solar-paneled cars. Each alternate energy source is explained, and pros and cons are reviewed.
  • Hot Topic: Electric Cars Cut Air Pollution,Reliance on Foreign Oil: This article delves into the benefits of using electric cars.
  • Newton Ask a Scientist - Electric Cars: A question-and-answer page looks at battery-powered cars and their energy use compared to fossil fuels.
  • Are Electric Cars Good for Society?: Read how electric cars can benefit the environment. Some improvements discussed are reducing oil dependency, increasing reliability of the electric grid, improving air quality, and reducing urban heat and urban noise.

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