Christine Johann | Air Pollution Is No Idle Threat in SCV

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The Santa Clarita Valley is a beautiful community with parks, recreation centers, paseos, bike paths, outdoor pools, nearby lakes, great schools and wonderful mountain trails for all to enjoy. 

That’s why I moved here more than 20 years ago, and why I wanted to raise a family here. The downside is we have our fair share of poor air quality days, mostly in the summer from ground-level ozone, fires and vehicle pollution both on the freeways and in town. 

Add to this layer of air pollution the unnecessary toxic emissions from idling parked passenger vehicles. If you’re reading this and realize this is you, please keep reading and consider changing your behavior. After all, it’s probably a habit of convenience and comfort and a result of being unaware of the negative consequences.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, parked idling (not in traffic) by all motor vehicles in California emits around 3 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, and consumes 300 million gallons of fuel. California has regulations that restrict idling of heavy-duty vehicles, school buses and off-road diesel vehicles (construction and mining), but they do not regulate passenger vehicles.

Do we need to warm up a vehicle? Since electric ignition became universal in the mid-1980s, restarting your vehicle does not result in significant fuel loss. Turning your car off is better for the engine than leaving it running. Even in cold weather it only takes about 30 seconds to warm up a vehicle, and this is done best by driving it, whereas just 10 seconds of idling wastes more fuel than restarting. Even with advancements in clean vehicle technology, internal combustion engines still emit 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of fuel consumed.

How does it affect my car? Excessive idling creates engine wear and carbon soot buildup, can reduce the life of engine oil, and shortens the life of spark plugs and the exhaust system. Furthermore, nationally, an estimated 12 million gallons of fuel are wasted by idling every day, which is equal to 387,000 barrels of oil and $32,680,000 in expense. Idling also contributes to greenhouse gases.

What comes out of the tailpipe? A toxic cocktail of carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrates and sulfur, and if it’s diesel, add fine particulate matter that gets deep into the lungs. Idling emissions can cause cancer, heart disease, and exacerbate asthma, COPD, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. Prolonged idling by caravans of cars and trucks lined up at our local school valet lines are toxic hotspots. EPA studies have shown that air around schools has elevated levels of benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and other air toxins during afternoon pickup. Children’s lungs are still developing, and when they are exposed to such high levels of pollutants they are at risk of adverse health effects.

In 2016 California passed a bill that encourages motorists not to idle where children congregate. It states that “one minute of idling puts more carbon monoxide into the air than smoking three packs of cigarettes; and idling produces between 10 and 12% more emissions than driving for the same amount of gas used.” 

It also states that idling is linked to asthma, which is the most common chronic illness among children.

Idling is an epidemic, and more recently fueled by smartphone use. The amount of time people spend in their vehicles has grown tremendously over the years. The automobile is a small fortress of creature comforts, superior sound systems, fancy drink holders and Bluetooth technologies. It’s like an extension of the home, or a place to just hang out, and unfortunately many people in this valley idle while hanging out.

Idling is bad for the car engine; it wastes oil, gas and money; it’s bad for the environment; and it has negative health consequences.

What can you do?

Warm up your car by driving it.

Avoid idling while using devices and smartphones, or in WiFi zones.

Avoid using a remote starter.

Avoid drive-throughs; go inside instead.

Never idle while parked near a school or parked for a valet line.

Turn your engine off at curbside pickups to protect employees’ health.

Spread the word through your social media network.

It may take some time and effort to change habits and let go of the convenience and comfort, but choosing not to idle our cars may be one of the simplest and most effortless things we can do to improve our environment and protect health.

Another option is driving a hybrid or all-electric vehicle, which eliminates idling emissions completely, but for those of us with traditional vehicles we can simply turn off the key and breathe clean air.

Let’s make every effort to reduce air pollution in our Santa Clarita Valley, so we all can enjoy the abundant outdoor and natural areas, doing what we love. 

A good resource is: idlefreecalifornia.org/what-you-can-do.html.

Christine Johann lives in Santa Clarita and is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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