Changing America’s fleet of trucks and buses to run on electricity while, at the same time, changing the nation’s power grid to renewable fuels could prevent 67,000 premature deaths by 2050, according to a report from the American Lung Association.
Trucks make up only 6% of vehicles on America’s roads but produce almost 60% of smog-forming emissions and about 55% of particulate pollution, said Will Barrett, one of the study’s authors and senior director of advocacy for the group. These pollutants contribute to health issues such as asthma, heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer.
The Biden administration has announced a goal of making America’s power grid entirely emissions-free by 2035. The report’s estimates for reduced health effects is modeled on the assumption that this goal is met and that, by 2040 at the latest, all new trucks put into service are fully electric or emissions-free.
The number of lives saved by such a change could well be higher since researchers only projected statistics for counties in the United States that contain a major truck route, said Barrett. In total, the report looked at 921 counties through which at least 8,500 truck trips per day are driven.
“If, let’s say, I-5 doesn’t run through that county but you’re adjacent to it, you’re downwind,” he said. “You may still be getting that benefit of this transition to zero emission trucks.”
The report also did not include Alaska or Hawaii in its estimates.
Trucks, in this case, include semi trucks as well as delivery and work vans, buses (such as school buses), and heavy duty pickups and pickup-based work rigs. This does not include lighter duty trucks like the Ford F-150 but bigger trucks, like the F-250 and F-350, would count. The Lung Association estimated healthcare cost savings by 2050 of $735 billion from transitioning to fully zero-emissions trucks over that period.
Pollution from these sorts of vehicles disproportionately affects Hispanics, Black people and other people of color in the United States, according to the Lung Association, citing research by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because people of color are more likely to live in areas near major trucking routes and hubs with a lot of truck traffic such as warehouse centers and rail yards, said Barrett.
“Oftentimes, we’re seeing major collectors of diesel trucks sited in communities that are lower income,” he said. “So, it’s not simply that it’s more affordable to live in highly polluted areas. Highly polluted areas are often created in lower income communities, in communities of color.”
About 45% of residents in these counties are not white compared to approximately 38% of the total US population, according to the report.
To come up with its projections for the number of premature deaths that could be prevented, researchers used statistical tools created by the EPA to estimate emissions created by various sources. They then used other EPA tools to estimate probable health effects of those emissions.
The report about trucks was a deeper look at one portion of a March 2022 report the Lung Association created about the potential health benefits of making all vehicles, and electricity generation, emissions free. While passenger vehicles are far more numerous than trucks, and contribute far more to greenhouse gas emissions that worsen global warming, trucks contribute much more to emissions that directly impact human health.
Making all vehicles and power generation emissions-free by 2050 would reduce nitrous oxide pollution from vehicles by 92%, volatile organic compounds by 78% and particulate pollution by 61%, according to the study. Particulate pollution includes particles from tires and brakes as well as particles in vehicle exhaust.