Campus News

What role can electric vehicles play in reducing air pollution at the community level?

Bokie Muigai June 29, 2023
electric vehicle charging

Researchers from the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC along with their community partner the Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative have been awarded a NIH R01 grant to study electric vehicle adoption in California. The investigation led by Erika Garcia, PhD, assistant professor of population and public health sciences, explores how the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) may impact air pollution levels and respiratory health. This new area of research takes advantage of a natural experiment to understand this transition’s impact on environmental exposures such as air pollution and its consequent effects on environmental health.

“We’re trying to understand the potential for a win-win. By shifting to an EV rather than a gasoline combustible vehicle, we are mitigating the effects of climate change, and also benefitting from better health outcomes from the reduction in air pollution at the community level,” remarks Garcia. Her research mission as an environmental epidemiologist is to understand how environmental exposures contribute to the development and exacerbation of human health and investigate what can be done to mitigate those impacts to better inform policy and public health interventions.

Previous studies on electric vehicle adoption relied on projections to predict the impact on environmental health, but this study will utilize real-world data in California to determine the actual effect. The grant will use observational data and assess at emergency department visits and hospitalizations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma—which are exacerbated by air pollution.

The study kicks off on the heels of the researcher’s preliminary analysis that looked at publicly available data of electric vehicle adoption before the pandemic. They found that while the transition to electric vehicles was still early in California, there was an adoption gap among communities who stood to benefit the most from the transition. Garcia hopes to unearth how best to overcome challenges and barriers to electric vehicle adoption in communities at risk of being left behind.

Communities on the lower end of the adoption were of lower socioeconomic status, which already tend to be overburdened with air pollution and poor health outcomes as a result. “This occurrence aligns with how we understand technology adoption in society, but we want to assure an equitable distribution for electric- and other zero-emission vehicles so that everyone can benefit—especially those who are most vulnerable—from the environmental health co-benefits of transition to EVs,” asserts Garcia.

In California, an increasing number of electric vehicles have been sold each year placing the researchers in better position to understand the impacts of adoption. The study consists of two components. The first, the research team will recruit participants for focus groups and convene a stakeholder advisory board to better understand the barriers and opportunities for electric vehicle adoption in southeast Los Angeles and similar communities. “Throughout the study, we will host community dialogues to connect the community and our research, in order to identify barriers and facilitator of this transition that we may not have thought to include and to better contextualize research findings” indicates Garcia. This will help the team ask better research questions and inform what additional data and analyses are needed to address the environmental health concerns of community members.

The second component, which will be informed by and is integrated with the community component, consists of statistical analysis to understand how the number of EVs in an area over time relates to changes in air pollution levels and in the number of emergency department and hospitalization visits. The research team also wants to understand which populations, based on either individual or community characteristics, seem to benefit more from EV adoption.

“We are not promoting electric vehicles as the key solution to mitigating climate,” clarifies Garcia. “We are studying what is already occurring with the EV transition. But, we also have to keep in mind other elements such as public transit and active transport that are also really beneficial when we think about this win-win in climate change and local environmental health.”

Other researchers involved in this study include Wilma Franco from the SELA Collaborative and Sandrah Eckel, Jill Johnston, and Lawrence Palinkas from the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences.