Earth Talk: Fuel economy, disease clusters
Dear EarthTalk: I read that car makers had agreed to up fuel economy standards to an average of about 55 miles per gallon by the year 2025, and that specifics were due to be hammered out by the end of 2011. Did this happen and where do things stand now? — Scott Ellis, Norwalk, CA
After years of wrangling on the issue, auto companies, regulators and policymakers have finally come to terms on increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for vehicles plying American roads. According to the plan as formulated by the Obama administration, automakers will double the average, unadjusted fuel-economy rating of their car and light truck vehicle fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 from today’s standard of 27 miles per gallon. Automakers which don’t meet the standards will be penalized $5.50 per 0.1 miles per gallon they fall below, multiplied by their total production for the U.S. market. Congress is likely to sign the new rules, which will start taking effect for the 2017 model year, into law this summer.
According to the White House, the higher standards will likely lead to price increases of some $2,000 per vehicle to cover the costs of more expensive technology, but drivers should save an average of $6,600 in gas over the life of a vehicle. Environmental advocacy groups allied as the Go60mpg Coalition report that the new rules will create almost half a million new jobs while cutting domestic oil consumption by 1.5 million barrels or more a day by 2030.
“The standards are going to lead to large investments and a rebirth of the U.S. auto industry [as] global leaders in innovation,” says Roland Hwang, director of the Transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the six environmental groups (along with Environment America, the National Wildlife Federation, the Safe Climate Campaign, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists) behind Go60mpg. Hwang figures the new rules will generate $300 billion in extra revenue to the U.S. auto industry, not to mention lining consumers’ pocketbooks with an estimated $200 billion in fuel savings. “This is a big deal [and] something that will keep the U.S. auto industry on the forefront of manufacturing innovation.”
In addition to the new CAFE standards for cars and light trucks, the White House is calling for a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from large trucks and buses by 2018. The fuel economy bump inherent in these new truck rules will translate to some $73,000 in fuel savings for truckers over the lifetime of a new 18-wheeler and some 530 million barrels of oil saved for all large trucks and buses made between 2014 and 2018.
Critics point out that no one can be sure how much new technology will add to the cost of vehicles, let alone how fluctuations in gas prices, consumer tastes and the overall economy could impact what types of cars people want to drive. While the new rules represent a gamble in regard to these variables, enough Americans see the benefits of more fuel efficient vehicles outweighing the trade-offs. Of course, environmentally conscious consumers can already buy more fuel efficient vehicles—Priuses, Volts and Leafs are already all over American roads. And if Congress goes along with its intent to pass the new rules, greener cars will be standard and the U.S will be on the forefront of automotive innovation once again.
CONTACTS: Go60mpg Coalition, www.go60mpg.org.
Dear EarthTalk: There are many areas around the U.S. where “disease clusters” have occurred, whereby unusually large numbers of people have gotten sick, usually because of proximity to a polluter. What if anything is being done to remedy the situation? — Michael Sorenson, Natick, MA
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) defines a disease cluster as “an unusually large number of people sickened by a disease in a certain place and time.” The organization, along with the National Disease Clusters Alliance (NDCA), reported in March 2011 that it had identified 42 disease clusters throughout 13 U.S. states: Texas, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas, all chosen for analysis, states the report, “based on the occurrence of known clusters in the state, geographic diversity, or community concerns about a disease cluster in their area.”
State and local health departments respond to some 1,000 inquiries per year about suspected disease clusters, though less than 15 percent turn out to be “statistically significant.” Epidemiologists explain that true cancer clusters typically involve one type of disease only, a rare type of cancer, or an illness not usually found in a specific age group.
A classic example of a disease cluster is in Anniston, Alabama, where residents experienced cancerous, non-cancerous, thyroid and neurodevelopment effects that they believe were caused by releases of various chemicals, including PCBs. The culprit: a nearby Monsanto-owned chemical maker, according to NDCA. And, indeed, a 2003 study in and around Anniston by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry did find that one in five locals had elevated PCB levels in their blood.
Clusters are controversial “in part because our scientific criteria for proving that exposure A caused disease B…are extremely difficult to meet,” says Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of The Autoimmune Epidemic. “People move, or die, or their disease is never properly diagnosed. How can we prove, with all these variables, that a toxic exposure in an area caused a group of people to fall ill with a specific set of diseases?” Nakazawa is hardly skeptical about the existence of disease clusters. She is part of a growing chorus of voices calling on the government to not only remediate existing sites but to also prevent disease clusters in the first place by developing more stringent standards regarding chemical usage and disposal.
“European environmental policy uses the precautionary principle—an approach to public health that underscores preventing harm to human health before it happens,” Nakazawa reports. In 2007 the European Union implemented legislation that forces companies to develop safety data on 30,000 chemicals over a decade, and places responsibility on the chemical industry to demonstrate the safety of their products. “America lags far behind, without any precautionary guidelines regarding chemical use,” adds Nakazawa.
NRDC says “there is a need for better documentation and investigation of disease clusters to identify and address possible causes.” Armed with better data, advocates for more stringent controls on chemicals could have a better chance of convincing Congress to reform the antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1975 and bring more recent knowledge about chemical exposures to bear in setting safer standards.
CONTACT: NRDC report, www.nrdc.org/health/diseaseclusters/files/diseaseclusters_issuepaper.pdf.
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