Cars, Trucks, and Air Pollution

Transportation is the largest single source of air pollution in the United States.
Cars and trucks produce significant amounts of air pollution.
Photo: Chris Liu Beers

Dirty cars, dirty air

In 2013, transportation contributed more than half of the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons emitted into our air.

This air pollution carries significant risks for human health and the environment. Through clean vehicle and fuel technologies, we can significantly reduce air pollution from our cars and trucks, while cutting projected U.S. oil use in half within the next 20 years.

The ingredients of air pollution

Cars and trucks produce air pollution throughout their life, including pollution emitted during vehicle operation, refueling, manufacturing, and disposal. Additional emissions are associated with the refining and distribution of vehicle fuel.

Air pollution from cars and trucks is split into primary and secondary pollution. Primary pollution is emitted directly into the atmosphere; secondary pollution results from chemical reactions between pollutants in the atmosphere. The following are the major pollutants from motor vehicles:

  • Particulate matter (PM). These particles of soot and metals give smog its murky color. Fine particles — less than one-tenth the diameter of a human hair — pose the most serious threat to human health, as they can penetrate deep into lungs. PM is a direct (primary) pollution and a secondary pollution from hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and sulfer dioxides. Diesel exhaust is a major contributor to PM pollution.
  • Hydrocarbons (HC). These pollutants react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to form ground level ozone, a primary ingredient in smog. Though beneficial in the upper atmosphere, at the ground level this gas irritates the respiratory system, causing coughing, choking, and reduced lung capacity.

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx). These pollutants cause lung irritation and weaken the body's defenses against respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza. In addition, they assist in the formation of ground level ozone and particulate matter.

  • Carbon monoxide (CO). This odorless, colorless, and poisonous gas is formed by the combustion of fossil fuels such as gasoline and is emitted primarily from cars and trucks. When inhaled, CO blocks oxygen from the brain, heart, and other vital organs. Fetuses, newborn children, and people with chronic illnesses are especially susceptible to the effects of CO.

  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2). Power plants and motor vehicles create this pollutant by burning sulfur-containing fuels, especially diesel. Sulfur dioxide can react in the atmosphere to form fine particles and poses the largest health risk to young children and asthmatics.

  • Hazardous air pollutants (toxics). These chemical compounds have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and other serious illnesses. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the air toxics emitted from cars and trucks — which include Benzene, acetaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene — account for half of all cancers caused by air pollution.

  • Greenhouse gases. Motor vehicles also emit pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to global climate change. In fact, cars and trucks account for over one-fifth of the United States' total global warming pollution; transportation, which includes freight, trains, and airplanes, accounts for around thirty percent of all heat-trapping gas emissions.
Last Revised: December 5, 2014

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