EVsStudy Links Adoption of Electric Vehicles with Less Air Pollution and Improved Health

Published 13 February 2023

Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC conducted one of the first-ever studies showing that electric cars are associated with real-world reductions in both air pollution and respiratory problems.

Electric vehicles are widely hailed as a key way to mitigate climate change through reduced emissions, but research on the dual benefits of reduced air pollution and improved health has been largely hypothetical.

A team of researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USChave now begun to document the actual impact of electric vehicle adoption in the first study to use real-world data to link electric cars, air pollution and health. Leveraging publicly available datasets, the researchers analyzed a “natural experiment” occurring in California as residents in the state rapidly transitioned to electric cars, or light-duty zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs). The results were just published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

The team compared data on total ZEV registration, air pollution levels and asthma-related emergency room visits across the state between 2013 to 2019. As ZEV adoption increased within a given zip code, local air pollution levels and emergency room visits dropped.

“When we think about the actions related to climate change, often it’s on a global level,” said Erika Garcia, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine and the study’s lead author. “But the idea that changes being made at the local level can improve the health of your own community could be a powerful message to the public and to policy makers.”

The researchers also found that while total ZEVs increased over time, adoption was considerably slower in low-resource zip codes—what the researchers refer to as the “adoption gap.” That disparity points to an opportunity to restore environmental justice in communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution and related health problems. 

“The impacts of climate change on health can be challenging to talk about because they can feel very scary,” said Sandrah Eckel, PhD, an associate professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine and the study’s senior author. “We’re excited about shifting the conversation towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, and these results suggest that transitioning to ZEVs is a key piece of that.”

Benefits for Health and the Climate
To study the effects of electric vehicle adoption, the research team analyzed and compared four different datasets. First, they obtained data on ZEVs (which includes battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen fuel cell cars) from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and tabulated the total number registered in each zip code for every year