Invest in Mass Transit. Electric Cars Still Pollute Air, Water, and Food.

I saw a tweet today from author/influencer Hank Green, asking for arguments against electric cars, and decided I’d put in my oar. In a lot of ways, electric cars are the most obvious “fix” for the problem of transit emissions. Combined with renewable and nuclear energy, they could make a huge dent in overall CO2 emissions, which would only grow as manufacturing is also switched over to low/no-carbon power. There’s good reason to look at electric cars as “the solution”, especially because it’s not hard to imagine keeping things as they are, but with electric instead of gas-powered cars. They could absolutely be a part of a climate-friendly society, in terms of carbon emissions. That said, I have a few reasons why I do not think we should take that route.

The first is that “keeping everything else the same” is not acceptable to me. It would mean that hundreds of millions of people around the world continue to deal with needless poverty and oppression, all to feed the insatiable greed of capitalists. It means injustice, and mass murder, and billions knowingly poisoned in the name of profit. It means virtually every battery in our electronics was partly build with brutal slave labor. I’m not here to fight for things to stay the same as they have been, minus the climate crisis, I’m here to fight for things to get better.

Second is that the climate crisis is not the only environmental crisis we’re facing. As I wrote a couple years back, chemical pollution is a serious global threat to both human health and biodiversity. There are many causes for that chemical pollution, but overproduction driven by the profit motive is a big factor. On its face, a certain amount of overproduction is probably a good thing. If we produce more than we need, we can store up resources against hard times, and invest in things like big infrastructure projects, space exploration, and so on. We’re in this to build a world where everyone has everything they need, and the only way to ensure that is to produce an excess. Unfortunately, the excesses we produce under capitalism have nothing to do with meeting people’s needs – they’re about profit for the owning class. That means that while we grow enough edible biomass to feed billions more people than currently exist, a huge portion of that is grown as feed for livestock, or to make ethanol as a gasoline additive, and a big portion of what is grown for human consumption is thrown away, because that’s better for the bottom line than simply giving unwanted food to people who need it.

It also means that products are deliberately designed to break or wear out sooner than is necessary, so that the product’s owner is forced to either pay for repairs, or buy a new product. We call this planned obsolescence, and while these days we may associate it more with smartphone charging cables, it was pioneered by the auto industry, and spread from there like a plague. I think that even in my utopian society, there would be electric cars. For all their flaws, cars are extremely useful machines, and can fill needs that mass transit cannot. That said, I think they should be more of a community resource, and the incentive structure surrounding their construction should be about durability and function, not simply turning raw materials and human labor into profit.

And third, switching to electric cars would continue the problem of air pollution from traffic. Popular media tends to focus on exhaust from tailpipes when depicting and discussing traffic pollution, but the reality is that these days the overwhelming majority of dangerous traffic pollution comes from the tires of the cars, not their tailpipes. The friction of tire against road rubs off ultra-fine particles that float around, and can work their way through our lungs and into our bloodstream, where they contribute to heart problems, strokes, brain problems, and more. In fact, as I was refreshing my memory for this post, I came across a piece of recent research that’s quite relevant. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it turns out that the traffic pollution that’s infiltrating our bodies, is getting into our food as well, not just from the air, but also from the half-treated sewage often used as fertilizer, and the water used for irrigation:

The presence of drug residues in commercially sold fruit and vegetables has already been scientifically investigated many times. However, chemical substances from tire wear, so-called additives, also find their way into the food chain. This has now been shown in a new study by an international research team led by Thilo Hofmann at the Center for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna (CeMESS) in collaboration with a team the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led by Benny Chefetz. Vegetables from Switzerland and Israel were examined. Some of these substances and their transformation products can potentially pose ecological and toxicological risks.

Car tires consist of a complex mixture of materials that improve their performance and durability. These include 5-15% chemical additives, which comprise hundreds of substances, for example antioxidants, antiozonants, vulcanizing agents, anti-aging agents and many more, to enable the hig-tech performance of a modern tire. “The toxicity of tire and road wear particles is related to their organic additives and associated transformation products,” explains Anya Sherman, PhD student at CeMESS and first author of the recently published study.

The compounds extracted from car tires find their way into agriculture through atmospheric deposition, irrigation with treated wastewater and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. “There they can be taken-up by plants and thus also reach humans,” adds Thilo Hofmann, head of the research group.

Residues of tire wear in leafy vegetables from the supermarket and field

Finally, the researchers extrapolated the measured values from the vegetables to the intake of these substances in the diet. “We calculated the intake per day based on what people in Switzerland and Israel eat,” says Sherman. The concentrations of the tire additives in leafy vegetables are low overall and are, for example, 238 ng/kg for benzothiazole (BTZ), or 0.4 ng/kg for 6PPD, a substance whose transformation product 6PPD quinone is known to be highly toxic for aquatic species like coho salmon. Depending on the diet, this leads to a daily intake per person of 12 to 1,296 ng for BTZ, or 0.06 to 2.6 ng for 6PPD. This is comparable in magnitude to drug residues, which also enter the food chain. According to Thilo Hofmann, the study shows clear results: “While the concentrations and daily intake are fortunately relatively low, additives from car tires are still found in food. That’s not where they belong.” According to Hofmann, the next steps should now be to investigate the environmental and human health aspects.

From the street, to the plant, into the body

As early as 2023, the scientists were able to show that additives from car tires can in principle be absorbed by plants. “However, the question was whether this only happens in our mechanistic laboratory study or also in the field,” explains first author Anya Sherman. In the current study, the Viennese and Israeli environmental scientists therefore analyzed whether lettuce plants absorb the chemicals released by car tires under natural growing conditions. “We examined real samples from supermarkets in Switzerland and field vegetables from Israel,” says Thilo Hofmann, explaining the background to the study published last week.

The international team of researchers used high-resolution mass spectrometry to analyze the samples for a total of sixteen tire-associated compounds. The countries of origin of the leafy vegetables in the Swiss samples from the supermarket were Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. In the Israeli samples, field vegetables from Israel directly after harvest.

The bit about sewage and treated water makes me worry that this is becoming something of an amplifying feedback loop, where our wasteful farming practices combine with wasteful transportation practices to gradually increase the concentration of tire chemicals in our diet. We don’t know yet what the full implications of this may be, but add it to the news about “forever chemicals” in our blood and tissues, and it’s hard to feel optimistic about it. So, my argument against electric cars is quite similar to my argument against gas-powered cars. Cars, as they are used today, are a problem no matter what is fueling them. Instead of investing in electric car companies and their profits, we should be investing in better mass transit, and redesigning our societies to minimize car dependence.

Now, I’m going to end with a slight topic shift. As I said at near the beginning, I find the global status quo unacceptable. There are a myriad of gross and utterly needless injustices going on around the world, both in the name of profit, and in the name of maintaining a particular order. Despite the propaganda you may have heard since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that order is not “rules-based”. American composer Frank Wilhoit once said “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds, but does not protect.” We can see that philosophy in action in conservative countries like the United States, but also in the world at large, led by the United States. There is no more glaring example of that, right at this moment, than the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, being carried out by Israel, with the full material and rhetorical support of the U.S. government.

I’m writing a longer post on this, which has had to undergo a number of changes, as events have unfolded more quickly than I’ve been able to work on it, but I felt I had to say something here because this research comes, in part, from an Israeli university. I could claim that this work is unrelated to the policies of the Israeli government, but the reality is that the whole country, as it has been conceived thus far, is an inherently violent and unjust project. Rather than actually grapple with the horrors of European and American antisemitism, the decision was made to invest in creating the nation of Israel, encouraging Jews to leave Europe, and forcing the people already living in Palestine to endure generations of oppression and ethnic cleansing. The Israeli project needs to end, as do all ethno-nationalist projects. The only path to a lasting, just peace in the region is one democratic nation, with equal rights for all, with an international peacekeeping force to aid what will unquestionably be a difficult and dangerous transitional period. I support the BDS movement, and the call for colleges and universities to cut ties with Israeli institutions, and any war profiteers working with Israel until the apartheid is ended, and Palestine is free.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    electric cars are the most obvious “fix” for the problem of transit emissions.

    Just absolutely false, and a perfect example of the kind of bullshit we’re being fed to try to put the onus for fixing climate change onto individuals.

    The most obvious fix for the problem of transit emissions is to stop people flying, by pricing them out of it or by making it illegal. Flying, especially private jet flying, is much, much worse than driving.

    The next most obvious is to fully electrify the freight road fleet and transfer as much as possible of freight onto rail.

    it’s not hard to imagine keeping things as they are, but with electric instead of gas-powered cars

    Well yes, but that requires imagining a completely different battery technology to that in use currently, something that can charge much, much quicker, something that doesn’t see a catastrophic dropoff in range when it’s cold, something that doesn’t see such a huge falloff in range as the battery ages, something that doesn’t cost the price of a new car to replace a battery when it’s no longer capable of an acceptable range, and something where the battery is repairable instead of basically written off if it gets so much as a dent. I *want* an electric car, but there are simply too many red flags around them at their current level of development. They are NOT a like-for-like replacement for an ICE car.

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