Azara Blog: Ethanol vehicles might have negative impact on human health

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Date published: 2007/04/18

The BBC says:

Ethanol vehicles may have worse effects on human health than conventional petrol, US scientists have warned.

A computer model set up to simulate air quality in 2020 found that in some areas ozone levels would increase if all cars were run on bioethanol.

Deaths from respiratory problems and asthma attacks would increase with such levels, the researchers reported in Environmental Science and Technology.

The EU has agreed that biofuels should be used in 10% of transport by 2020.

Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University in California, used a computer model which took into account factors such as temperatures, sunlight, clouds and rain to simulate air quality in 2020 for two different scenarios.

In one simulation all vehicles were fuelled by petrol and in the other all vehicles were fuelled by E85 - a mix of 85% ethanol and 15% petrol.

If all cars were run on E85, he found that in some parts of the US there were significant increases in ozone - a pollutant with harmful effects on the human respiratory system - compared with petrol cars.

In the study, the increase in smog translated to an extra 200 deaths per year in the whole of the US, with 120 occurring in Los Angeles alone.

Increases in ozone in some areas of the US would be offset by decreases in other areas but overall there would be 770 additional visits to accident and emergency and 990 additional hospitalisations for asthma and other respiratory problems, the results showed.

Although ethanol was found to reduce levels of two atmospheric carcinogens, levels of others increased so associated cancers would be the same as with pollution caused by petrol fumes, the study showed.

It's only one study and it's a computer model, so to be taken with a pinch of salt. And if you believe (and even this is not obvious) that biofuel vehicles lead to (end-to-end) decreases in carbon emissions, and that excess greenhouse gases are the number one problem in the world, then you might put up with a bit more ozone and a few more cancers. Surprise, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And as more potential problems are discovered (e.g. even more of the Amazon gets chopped down to grow crops for biofuels), this headlong rush into biofuel production could well be looked back upon in thirty or forty years as one big disaster.

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