We all now live on an environmentally conscious planet. It has become your duty (yes you) my diligent motorist, to know exactly how much your vehicle is harming the atmosphere. Not least because your annual car tax is directly linked to how much CO2 your beloved car emits per kilometre!
But car pollution is not just about CO2 emissions, and herein lies the muddled confusion.
Engines also produce carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons, and all have an impact on the environment, albeit with a more localised effect.
So what are they?
Essentially they are all a result of the incomplete burning of fuel in the engine, and will continue to be produced despite the fact that modern engines have to become increasingly efficient. All cars are governed by a series of European-wide emissions regulations. Currently, cars are subject to Euro IV requirements (that’s right you’ve heard the name on the car adverts), with the tougher Euro V standard set to be introduced in September 2009.
Carbon monoxide is without doubt up there with CO2 as the most recognised pollutant thanks to the tabloid fraternity. This is because breathing in carbon monoxide reduces your blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Very high levels of the gas can be fatal, which is why it’s always wise to a have a carbon monoxide detector in your home in case your boiler breaks down.
Even the far lower levels produced by cars are thought to pose a health risk, especially to those suffering from heart disease. If you were to stand around in a traffic jam for a long time, you may develop headaches and dizziness as a result of exposure.
Particulate matter (PM) is a problem for diesel engines which produce large amounts of PM10 (so called because the particles are 10 micrometers in diameter). This can be seen as smoke coming out of the exhaust.
PM10s are the largest particles that your nose and throat can’t effectively filter out, so they end up in your lungs. Here they aggravate existing respiratory diseases and are thought to contribute to higher levels of asthma and heart disease.
Nitric oxide combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to create nitrogen dioxide and various other oxides of nitrogen. Like particulates, the gases are thought to be responsible for aggravating and causing respiratory illnesses, but could also increase allergic reactions.
NOx are also linked to the formation of acid rain which damages vegetation and crops.
Fuel you put in your tank is a hydrocarbon (something with a molecular structure comprised mainly of hydrogen and carbon), so strictly speaking we should be talking about carbon here – a posh word for soot.
Either way, this material contributes to the formation of ground level ozone which, again, is thought to be responsible for causing and aggravating respiratory conditions.
So there it is, in layman’s terms (well – hopefully). The magic 4 – carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. Not only a danger to the Earth’s environment but a danger to us all in one way or another. The sooner eco-friendly electric cars are more commonplace the better – for everybody’s sake.