Cars as bad as bushfires for pollution

Cars as bad as bushfires for pollution

31 May 2011

published by

Australia — Air quality figures show roads, rivers and barbecues all do their bit to hurt the environment.

When it comes to the question of what was more devastating for Australia’s air quality last year, it’s a close-run race between bushfires and motorists.

Data from the federal government’s National Pollutant Inventory show that while motorists pumped out 2.0 million tonnes of highly poisonous carbon monoxide into the atmospehere in 2010, it was pipped — just — by the 2.1 million tonnes of carbon monoxide produced by wildfires and the fuel reduction burns used to minimise their impact.

Cars spat 12,000 tonnes of particulate matter — small particles suspended in the air and measuring about 1/40th the width of a human hair — into the sky last year, while bushfires accounted for a much bigger environmental slug, producing 240,000 tonnes of smoke. However, that is about where the less environmentally friendly aspects of bushfires turn to smoke, with motor vehicles generally being much less friendly to the environment than fire.

Cars and their ilk were also responsible for producing 230,000 tonnes of what are called volatile organic compounds — a mixture of not so nice ingredients including benzene, acetone, styrenes and xylenes — and 340,000 tonnes of irritating nitrous oxides, compared with fire’s respective 150,000 tonnes and 140,000 tonnes.

Surprisingly, cars were also responsible for sending 4100 tonnes of ethanol into the atmosphere — the substance is a common fuel additive, with some vehicles now able to use a mix of up to 85 per cent of the alcohol and 15 per cent unleaded petrol. Bushfires, on the other hand, produced only 44 tonnes of ethanol.

Fires were also rsponsible for 13 tonnes of toxic lead compounds making their way into the atmosphere, compared with 100 tonnes for vehicles, which have traditionally used the metal as a fuel additive.
How does all that stack up with the simple act of mowing the lawn?

Keeping the grass neat and tidy accounted for around 86,000 tonnes of carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere last year, although the lead compounds released were only a miserly 690 kilograms. Particlate matter was the equivalent of 540 tonnes.

Even backyard barbecues — an Australian staple in the suburbs — produced 4400 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 11kg of lead compounds, and 240 tonnes of smoke. The amount of volatile organic compounds produced equates to 2600 tonnes.

Recreational boating also took its toll in 2010, although it made a less significant splash overall. It was responsible for 37,000 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 370 kilograms of lead compounds, 1700 tonnes of nitrous oxides and 330 tonnes of particulate matter.

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