Electric Cars a Health Hazard in China

Nearly all of China's electricity is produced from coal plants.

Buying an electric car to be green? If you live in China, think twice: The electricity used to power that car comes primarily from coal in China, making the negative impact on health greater for e-cars than traditional, gasoline-powered vehicles, a new study says.

With e-car sales rising in China, researchers analyzed the environmental health impacts of five different vehicles in 34 cities in China. Previous studies have focused on emission factors and greenhouse gas emissions, but the authors believe this is the first study that analyzes the proportion of emissions actually inhaled by individuals.

"We had an idea that the emissions are farther away from people in China, and we thought it was appropriate to look at the health effects," said Julian Marshall, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Although emissions occur where the electricity is generated as opposed to where an e-car is driven, 85 percent of electricity production is from fossil fuels in China, and about 90 percent of that is from coal. Overall, those emissions harm public health more than emissions from gasoline-powered cars, says the study published in Environmental Science and Technology.

"Even in rural areas in China, there are still more people living nearby" power plants than in the U.S., Marshall said.

Don't cancel your alternative vehicle shopping just yet, though: When clean energy is used, e-cars are much more environmentally friendly than gas-powered vehicles. It's unclear how e-cars in the U.S. impact health.

And, "we can clean electric systems," Marshall pointed out. "It doesn't mean it will always be this way."

The study also showed that e-bikes yield the lowest environmental health impact - and e-bike sales are skyrocketing in China, outnumbering conventional vehicles 2-to-1.

Credit: Liu Liqun/Corbis