Here's one statistic you will never see popping up in a Sierra Club press release: Personal vehicles -- that's cars, minivans, light trucks and even the oft-maligned sport utility vehicles -- produce 65 percent less pollution than they did 30 years ago. The startling reduction occurred even as the number of vehicle miles traveled has more than doubled. The information comes from an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data that was commissioned by the American Autombile Association. The EPA data covered 25 major metropolitan areas in the United States, including Milwaukee. The study found that 65 to 80 percent of the most common air pollutants -- volatile organic compounds like carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides -- come from stationary sources like power plants and refineries and from big trucks and buses. Only about 24 percent comes from cars and other personal vehicles. That's down substantially from 1970, when cars and other personal vehicles accounted for up to 68 percent of organic compounds and 56 percent of nitrogen compounds. In Milwaukee in 1970, cars produced 54 percent of organic compounds and 32 percent of nitrogen oxides. By this year, those numbers had fallen to 22 percent and 24 percent. The reason for the reduction is cleaner cars, cleaner gasoline, vastly improved gasoline mileage and better state inspection programs. It's worth noting that major automobile manufacturers might not have produced such vehicles without the Clean Air Act and its tailpipe emission standards. The AAA survey, conducted by Energy & Environmental Analysis, did not include the Madison area. It's possible here that automobile pollution makes up a higher percentage than in the cities surveyed, because there are fewer pollution-producing industries. But it's still a lower percentage than it was 30 years ago, and AAA predicts it will be lower still in years to come. You can blame cars for traffic jams and parking lots and the money spent on new and improved roads. The Sierra Club blames them for everything from obesity to urban sprawl. But when it comes to air pollution, cars have a bad reputation they don't deserve.
Copyright 1999 Madison Newspapers, Inc.
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