How Much Air Pollution Do Cars Really Cause?

The EPA estimates that the typical passenger car emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Written by Amber Reed
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
Updated on Jan 13, 2023
Air pollution literally and figuratively stinks—and cars are a major cause of it. The EPA estimates that a typical passenger car emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. 
There are three main types of air pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. Unless you have an
electric car
, your vehicle pollutes the air every time it runs. And this pollution doesn’t just go away—it remains in the atmosphere and creates health problems for both people and the planet. 
But what exactly are these pollutants and how bad is it to drive a car? Here, the
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is breaking down everything you need to know about how much air pollution cars really cause.
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What are the main types of air pollution? 

The amount and type of pollution from your car depends on factors like engine type,
the type of gas your car needs
, and how well you maintain your car. Here are the three main types of pollutants that come from cars.

Particulate matter

This is the stuff that you can actually see. Those dark, billowing fumes from that stinky truck you’re stuck behind? It's a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets—and breathing it in can cause damage to your lungs and potentially enter your bloodstream. 

Carbon monoxide (CO)

When your car burns fuel, it emits carbon monoxide. Breathing in too much carbon monoxide can cause damage to your brain, heart, and other organs—and can be fatal in high enough concentrations
Environmental Protection Agency
estimates that as much as 95% of carbon monoxide in cities comes from vehicle exhaust! 

Nitrogen dioxide(NO2)

Nitrogen dioxide is another pollutant that is released when your car burns fuel. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide can damage your respiratory system, and long-term exposure has been linked to chronic lung disease.  
High levels of nitrogen oxides in the air contribute to increased greenhouse gasses, which are a large contributor to changes in climate trends.

How much do cars pollute the air?

A large amount of air pollution comes from cars, trucks, and other vehicles that are used for transportation. 
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, transportation is the cause of nearly 27% of greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA estimates that vehicles cause almost 75% of the carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S. 

Passenger vehicles 

The typical passenger vehicle is responsible for emitting about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That breaks down to about 404 grams per mile
Tailpipe emissions also include methane and nitrous oxide. While these are present in much smaller amounts than carbon dioxide, they are still detrimental as they’re big factors in climate change. 
And it’s not just your car’s engine that’s the problem: when you fill up your gas tank, the vapors that escape contribute to air pollution. A leaky air conditioning unit is not only a pain to deal with, but it also causes hydrofluorocarbon emissions. This is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions as well.
All cars don’t pollute equally, either. One study found that among a group of cars, just 25% of them were responsible for almost 90% of the pollution that was generated.
Pro Tip Keeping your car well-maintained can help keep its air pollution to a minimum. 

Commercial vehicles

The boats, trains, and trucks we use to transport goods are also responsible for a good deal of air pollution. 
Free shipping isn’t really free—at least not where the environment is concerned. The conveniences of e-commerce and quick shipping are wonderful, but that all comes at the cost of increased traffic on roads, waterways, and in the air. Many large companies like Etsy and IKEA have acknowledged this and made commitments to zero-emissions shipping. 
But some good news—today’s vehicles are estimated to be a whopping 98-99% cleaner for most pollutants than their counterparts from the 60s.
Key Takeaway While a lot of progress has been made, passenger vehicles are still responsible for a great deal of air pollution. 

The effects of air pollution from cars

Air pollution causes damage on many fronts. It’s bad for the environment, bad for humans, and bad for other non-human creatures.
Increased levels of air pollution can cause: 
  • Higher rates of cancer and birth defects
  • Higher rates of asthma and heart disease
  • Eye and lung irritation
It’s not just humans who suffer the effects of air pollution, either. Numerous studies have shown that air pollution is harmful to animals, plant life, and the oceans. 

Greenhouse gases

Air pollution causes an increase in greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. While we need some of these to help maintain the temperature of the planet, too much of them is not a good thing. 
Extreme weather, floods, wildfires, and rising ocean levels are all effects of the changes to the climate to which greenhouse gases contribute. 

How you can help reduce air pollution from cars 

Not everyone is able to drive an electric car—yet. Fortunately, there are still a lot of things that you can do to help reduce air pollution:
  • Combine trips for greater efficiency
  • Carpool or use public transportation 
  • Walk or ride your bike 
  • Keep your car in good repair—a well-maintained engine will pollute less
  • Swap out gas-powered appliances for electric versions (looking at you, leaf blowers)
If you are thinking about getting an electric vehicle, don’t forget to look into any
electric vehicle incentives
that your state might offer. 

Finding affordable car insurance

Now that you’ve found out some ways to be kind to the earth, let
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