Lead Pollution From Electric Cars? Look a Little Closer at the Facts

I HAVE been commuting to downtown Los Angeles for four years in my electric car, getting the thumbs-up from other drivers, happy that my converted Volkswagen Karmann Ghia (license plate SMOGLSS) emits not an iota of tailpipe pollution. So, I was aghast to read a recent report from Carnegie-Mellon University asserting that electric cars may make the environment dirtier. "If this is true," I told my wife, "I'll get rid of the car tomorrow."

After all, I bought SMOGLSS only because I felt that as a Los Angeles driver I had contributed more than my lifetime share to dirtying the air. As a professor of environmental law, I thought the time had come for me to practice what I teach. I could not quite summon the virtue of my few colleagues who take the bus, or the campus priest who pedals 25 miles to work on his bicycle, but I figured that the electric car would help get me back in line with the kindergarten rule that you clean up your own messes.

I wanted to be sure, so I delved into research data. I found that my car cuts air pollution (volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide) by 97 percent compared with a gas car. I wondered if I was merely transferring the pollution from the city to the distant power plant generating the electricity. No. Only 3 percent as much is emitted at the electric plant to charge my car as is emitted from a gas car.

Cutting air pollution this much means that the electric car is causing 97 percent less cost to the public in form of bad health, reduced property values, crop and forest losses, and damage to buildings. Economists have put a price tag of nearly $15 billion a year on those costs of automobile smog in Los Angeles. That works out to more than $2,100 in costs to other people's health and property caused every year by the average gasoline car doing my 60 mile round-trip commute.

Finally, I determined that the electric car cuts carbon dioxide by 63 percent, fulfilling our nation's pledge under the International Climate Change Convention to reduce greenhouse gases and the risk of global warming.

Now comes the report in Science magazine by three professors at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "A 1998 model electric car," declare the professors, "is estimated to release 60 times more lead per kilometer of use relative to a comparable car burning leaded gas- oline." Not that electric cars emit lead at the tailpipe, they say, but lead is emitted where their batteries are made. Egads, I thought, I'm a lead polluter!

Fortunately, the Science study is fast going up in smoke. In its last footnote, the authors acknowledge grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and thank the Green Design Consortium of the Carnegie-Mellon University Engineering Design Research Center. Nowhere in the article, but buried in the authors' NSF Grant summary available on the Internet, is this astonishing statement: "The Ford Motor Company will work with us in transferring the research results...." Moreover, the university research center's directory of industry affiliates lists, among others, British Petroleum America, Exxon Research & Engineering, General Motors Delco Chassis, General Motors Packard Electric, Mobil R & D, and Shell Development.

The auto and oil companies, of course, are lobbying to scuttle environmental laws in California, New York, and Massachusetts requiring electric cars to be produced by 1998.

A Carnegie-Mellon publication states that, "Green Design Consortium Membership is open to industrial partners interested in participating and guiding consortium projects. Annual membership is $20,000 for new members, and $10,000 for pre-existing members of the Engineering Design Research Center.... Membership benefits include: The opportunity to provide input on research direction and suggest specific research programs. Access to: Carnegie-Mellon University laboratories and researchers.... Two membership meetings per year ... to ensure feedback of projects ... and guide project development."

I called one of the study's authors, Professor Francis C. McMichael, who acknowledged oil and auto company membership in the research center. "It is just the nature of research at private universities these days to seek corporate sponsorship," he said. He emphasized that no specific oil or auto company funding was earmarked for this study. Dr. McMichael did not seem bothered by the fact that for $10,000 or $20,000 a year his "industrial partners" can "provide input on research direction" and "guide project development." Thus is the notion of scientific integrity lost. Thus does Carnegie-Mellon risk slipping into science for sale, and then into bad science.

And the Carnegie-Mellon study is bad science. "Sloppy" and "misleading" are the words used by Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. There are outright mistakes, like confusing kilograms for pounds and miscalculating the weight of GM's current battery pack. The "60 times more lead per kilometer" assertion is an Alice-in-Wonderland figure based on at least five major methodological errors.

As with the cold-fusion claim several years ago, the researchers have offered no evidence to support their basic thesis - that lead pollution from making batteries for electric vehicles is more damaging to health and the environment than the lead formerly contained in gasoline, and also more damaging than the smog caused by gas cars.

To prove this, they will have to show that lead is escaping from the three primary smelters, 23 secondary smelters, and manufacturing plants in enormous quantities and is affecting the health of millions. They will have to show that health costs of the escaping lead exceed all health and environmental costs from old leaded gasoline and from smog. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says virtually no lead is escaping from these sites. The Carnegie-Mellon scholars guess that some lead is escaping, based on old data from years before EPA controls were in effect. But they never bother to calculate the health costs of the claimed escape and never compare them with the health and environmental costs of leaded gas and smog.

Their thesis is never proved, and their paper, lacking the logical and intellectual integrity of science, deserves a thumbs-down.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Lead Pollution From Electric Cars? Look a Little Closer at the Facts
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today