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Auto Earth


new internationalist
issue 195 - May 1989

Auto Earth
Cars are the single largest drain on the world's natural resources; they are also a major source of hazardous waste and pollution. The average driver trails a plume of poisonous exhaust, asbestos brake linings, synthetic rubber tire dust, toxic oil drippings, and fugitive air-conditioner coolant. Eric Draper takes stock of the auto's impact on the global environment.

[image, unknown] The poisoned pavement

ROADS require tremendous amounts of resources. Vegetation is stripped away, destroying habitats so that animals flee or are crushed beneath earth movers. The topsoil is pushed aside and the land's contours are smoothed. Streams and pools are filled, diked or ditched.

If bridges are needed, pilings are sunk into rivers. Sediment chokes the water, killing fish and disrupting other aquatic life. Modern roads require not only the area upon which the roadbed is laid, but also shoulders, graded rights of way and ditches and culverts to drain run-off water.

Asphalt is made from the toxic tar that remains from coal and oil processing. To that is added aggregate which often comes from incinerators and power plants - and is laden with dangerous heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. These materials slowly leach their contents into the land and the water.

To maintain roads and to clear weeds from ditches, crews often spray the weeds with carcinogenic herbicides, the same basic chemical made popular as Agent Orange in Vietnam. Waste oil is sprayed to suppress dust on unpaved roads. During snow-storms, roads are salted to melt ice, polluting groundwater supplies.

[image, unknown] Space invaders

When you add up all the space devoted to parking lots, expressways, clover-leafs and roundabouts, flyovers, bridges, gas-stations and garages, close to a third of all land in cities goes to accommodate the automobile.

Motorways and the associated interchanges, exits and entry ramps cover thousands of acres of prime food-producing land in Europe. In the US, 60 thousand square miles (10 per cent of the country's arable land) have been paved. That's an area the size of England. Parking lots devour huge stretches of land but are empty 80 per cent of the time. Between parking spaces at home, at work and at the shopping center, the average car uses three times the space of the average home. Parking lots for shopping centers are the most environmentally destructive. Car berths are marked by thick puddles of oil and transmission fluid. And their water run-off violates environmental standards set for industrial discharges.

[image, unknown] Oil guzzlers

The world's 386 million cars are the main consumers of non-renewable petroleum. Motor vehicles in 1985 accounted for 35 per cent of all oil consumed in Japan, 44 per cent in Western Europe, 49 per cent in the Third World and 65 per cent in the US. Canadians and Americans together use about 125 billion gallons of fuel per year - about 800 gallons per car. Australians use about 500 and Europeans about 300.

Gasoline is refined from oil. Oil that is pumped from the ground needs huge amounts of water to push it out and fill the space it occupied. In the process, drilling brines and solvents contaminate groundwater in the area. If oil is pumped from the sea, surrounding waters are poisoned and sporadic leaks drift landward to foul nearby beaches and estuaries.

A frantic search for oil, to keep the global car fleet running, touches the world's most fragile environments. Oil companies are now clamouring to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where estimated reserves would fuel American autos for a mere 200 days.

[image, unknown] Gas attack

Each time an engine cylinder fires and fossil fuels burn, the exhaust gases add to the world's load of air pollution.

The main chemical emissions are carbon monoxide and dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur as well as particulates like lead. Carbon monoxide slows the rate at which oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream. Small exposures cause shortness of breath and decreased alertness. Large amounts can kill. Motor vehicles produce an estimated 67 per cent of the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere.

'Smog', the dirty brown air which envelopes many cities, is a mixture of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides chemically altered by sunlight.

Concentrations of less than one part per million of nitrogen oxides are enough to disable persons with chronic respiratory diseases. Hydrocarbons such as benzene are proven carcinogens. And diesel engines also produce large quantities of particulates which are known to produce cancer. An estimated 60 per cent of Calcutta residents suffer from respiratory diseases caused by air pollution much of which results from motor vehicle exhaust.

Nitrogen and sulfur oxides from car exhaust also contribute to acid rain, which is destroying forests and cropland. Cars, trucks and buses generate more than half of all nitrogen oxides in Western Europe.

Motor vehicles also produce 17 per cent of all the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels. This is the principal 'greenhouse' gas.

[image, unknown] Ploxic waste

Plastics are quickly replacing metals in car production: 200 million pounds of plastics are used annually in autos. Two pounds of hazardous waste are produced for each pound of plastic. Much of the steel, iron and aluminium is recycled when cars are scrapped. But plastics are burned off, releasing toxic gases. Burning plastic from motor cars accounts for much of the poisonous dioxin now being released into the environment.

Toxics are also released when cars are manufactured. Paint-thinners, de-greasers and solvents are all released into the atmosphere. Each year 250 million auto tires are produced, largely from synthetic rubber which is difficult to recycle. In the US, tire plants along Ohio's Cayahoga River dumped so much waste into the river it caught fire. The factories are now closed but the river is still biologically dead.

Every year 100 million lead auto batteries are discarded. Eventually their plastic casings crack and release lead-laden acids.

[image, unknown] Additive alert

Gasoline and diesel fuel are distilled at huge refineries which produce both toxic waste and toxic air emissions. The refineries are located in towns that have the highest cancer rates and are populated by workers with the highest occupational disease rates.

Deadly additives (lead and ethylene di-bromide or combinations of benzene, toluene and xylene) are mixed into gasoline to improve performance.

Lead is a persistent and troubling pollutant that accumulates in the body and causes brain damage, kidney failure and anemia. Even so, leaded fuel is still the norm in much of the world. In 1986, lead-free fuel accounted for only five per cent of total gasoline sales in Europe. In Mexico City air, lead levels are so high that doctors estimate children will suffer an average IQ loss of five points.

Car air-conditioners use around 13 per cent of all chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Once thought to be harmless, these indestructible molecules climb to the upper atmosphere where they attack the ozone layer. Ozone shields the earth from ultraviolet light which burns plants and causes skin cancer. Another 50 per cent of CFCs are used in molded foam to make auto interiors and exteriors.

Eric Draper works for Clean Water Action in Washington DC.

Illustration: Claude Serre

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