Running on Fumes
Planes, trains and automobiles are getting the “going green” treatment, showing promise for the future of healthier travel.

It’s no secret that outdoor air pollution can have detrimental effects on our health. The impact that pollution plays on lung cancer rates—it’s the cause of one in 10 cases—has been known for a while, but research is finding that air pollution may be associated with numerous other cancer types as well. Because tourism produces five percent of energy-related carbon emissions, travel can ultimately impact our health.

A 2016 study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention concluded that one long-term effect of particle matter exposure through emissions from transportation is increased risk of mortality for all causes of cancer, especially breast, liver and pancreatic cancer. Mortality risk for all of these types was at least 35 percent higher, and up to 80 percent higher for breast cancer.

It’s important to continue developing innovative ways to minimize the harm pollutants can cause us. In the travel transportation sphere, moves are made every day to decrease the risk that planes, vehicles and trains pose to our health.

On a Big Jet Plane

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, aviation has surpassed the power sector as the biggest source of U.S. carbon emissions. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that aircrafts were responsible for three percent of U.S. carbon emissions and nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Commercial air travel was the biggest culprit.

Thankfully, changes like more efficient planes and better alternatives to jet fuel are forging a path in sustainable air travel.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) supports research and development in the use of low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAFs consist of renewable biomass and waste that, depending on the type, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions nearly 100 percent.

Companies are also researching better materials for building airplanes. An aircraft’s weight directly impacts its emissions output, so research is focusing on less toxic, lighter composite materials for flying.

One for the Road

Traffic-related air pollution is causing automobile manufacturers to clean up cars. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies diesel exhaust as a “Category 1” or definite carcinogen. Exposure to these fumes can cause cancer in humans, and passenger cars are a major polluter.

Electric car and plug-in electric hybrid car sales have grown in recent years, which bodes well for decreasing health hazards that traditional gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars pose. Alongside cars that use alternative fuels, like compressed natural gas (CNG) or E85, these environmentally friendly fleets reduce overall carbon emissions.

Bonus: It will also cost you a lot less to operate your car in the long run.

Chugging Along

Trains emit less emissions than cars and airplanes, and President Biden has proposed providing Amtrak $80 billion over eight years to further develop it as green travel. But trains are not perfect.

Railroad workers, train drivers and those who live near train tracks have seen increased cancer cases. Diesel pollution is once again at fault, but so are low-frequency magnetic fields that modern trains use. Train passengers are much less at risk for these hazards, however.

Decarbonizing trains is similar to decarbonizing cars and is much easier than improving air travel. The rail sector has looked at advanced diesel technologies, batteries and natural gas as alternatives to the current diesel-electric method.

Overall, when deciding between the three modes of travel transportation, trains produce the least emissions and are leading the way toward cleaner, greener travel—and better human health.


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