Against Idling: Our Pollution, Our Habits, Our Remedies

“Our Pollution, Our Habits, Our Remedies”

Denver: A Top 10 Smoggiest City!

I was astounded to read, a few weeks ago, about a new report which listed Denver as one of the top 10 smoggiest metro areas. With our view of the mountains, blue skies and sunshine, it feels inconceivable! Yet a report by the Frontier Group and the Environment America Research & Policy Center released April 11, 2017, gives the dirty details.  
The Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area was 6th on the list with 176 days of “elevated smog pollution.” 21 of those days were classified as “unhealthy” days for “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (children and older adults) and 153 days were categorized as “moderate” or “acceptable.” The report explains that even minimal exposure to ozone pollution can damage health, and “extended periods of exposure to smog creates a compound effect” — this means that the 153 days of “moderate” pollution can produce an aggregate affect with create health issues. Children and active, outdoors-oriented adults are most at risk.

Smog and Health

What are the health effects of smog (ground-level ozone) and fine-particulate pollution? As the Frontier report explains, smog (ground-level ozone) can cause: 
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • throat irritation
  • a raised risk of infection
  • permanent damage to lung tissue, especially in children
Fine particulate matter causes:
  • similar respiratory harms
  • cardiovascular issues (heart attacks, strokes and congestive heart failure)
  • developmental and neurological damage. 
For children, particulate pollution is linked to: 
  • premature birth
  • higher risk of developing autism
  • stunted lung development
For older people, breathing fine particulates also increases the risk of dementia.


What causes smog and pollution? As you might expect, these are “the byproducts of burning coal, gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels” and so the basic aims for reducing pollution would include energy sources that are based not on fossil fuels but upon clean, renewable sources like wind and solar energy.

One Simple Change We Can Do: Idling our cars

Since most of us do not operate power plants or write energy legislation, we have little direct influence over how our energy is generated. One simple way we can be effective — and this goes for many things related to sustainability — is examine our day-to-day habits. In this arena, we all have the power to make a real change.

Idling our cars is one habit we can reconsider — and reform. “Idling” is when we park our cars — for example, in the carpool lane or outside a store — and leave the engine running.  Sometimes, we cannot help idling — we might be stopped at a traffic signal, or  waiting in a freezing cold environment; but often, we just forget. We’re busy, not thinking — an automatic habit. The first step to arresting an automatic habit is to become conscious and knowledgeable about it. (Hence, this column.)

Idling: Harmful and Wasteful

As the Engines Off, Colorado and the Environmental Defense Fund write, idling is both harmful to our health (and our kids’ health) and wasteful of money and energy.

Idling tailpipes: 
  • emit the same kinds of pollutants as moving cars, harmful for the reasons mentioned above
  • emit a surprising amount of pollution. One minute of idling produces more carbon monoxide than the smoke from three packs of cigarettes. 
  • waste fuel and money, using between 1/5 to 7/10 of a gallon of fuel per hour
  • emit, on average, a pound of carbon dioxide (the primary contributor to global warming) for every 10 minutes of idling.
Idling for No Good Reason: Misconceptions about our Cars

Many think they need to keep their cars running, or “warm them up.” This isn’t true anymore. As Engines Off! and the non-profit The Environmental Media Association (EMA) point out,
  • Modern engines require much less fuel at startup than people think.
  • Idling is harder on the engine than restarting. Frequent restarting causes only about $10 worth of wear-and-tear per year, whereas idling leaves fuel residues that damage engine components and cause higher maintenance costs over time. Ford Motor Company recommends turning the engine off, even for stops of 30 seconds, to save fuel, money, and air quality. They have said, "Frequent restarting has little impact on components that include the battery and starter motor."
  • An idling engine is not operating at its peak temperature, which means that fuel does not undergo complete combustion. This leaves fuel residue that can deposit on spark plugs and increase fuel consumption by up to 5%. 
  • Idling wastes fuel. Idling for a few minutes everyday can cost you several dollars per week – which doesn’t seem like much, but adds up in the long run.
  • Two minutes of idling uses the same amount of gas as 1 mile of driving – according to the Consumer Energy Center. (Nerds who want specific data can find it here.)
Ways to be idle-free
Here are simple tips (courtesy of the EDF) we can stop idling and reduce the pollution we are dumping on people (and kids) trying to breathe:

1. Turn off your ignition if you’re waiting more than 10 seconds. Contrary to popular belief, restarting your car does not burn more fuel than leaving it idling. In fact, idling for just 10 seconds wastes more gas than restarting the engine.
Typical times we idle our cars include:
  • Waiting to pick up passengers (kids at school)
  • Eating/taking break in parking lots (at school, at work, etc.)
  • Waiting at train crossings
  • Talking on cell phone
Try these switch-out behaviors:
  • Get out of the car. Go into a business rather than idling in drive-thru lines at fast food restaurants, banks, Starbucks, etc. by parking and going into the business.  If the you have to do drive-thru, don’t idle if the line is very slow.
  • Avoid jams. Drive to events early to avoid getting stuck in traffic and idling in traffic or parking lots.
  • Work with elected officials to adopt an idling ordinance. For example, the City and County of Denver's Idling Vehicle Ordinance limits idling to five minutes in any one-hour period. (Did you know? Denver Police have the authority to ticket any vehicle immediately if it is left idling unattended, unless the vehicle has a remote starter.)
2. Warm up your engine by driving it, not by idling. Today’s electronic engines do not need to warm up, even in winter. The best way to warm the engine is by easing into your drive and avoiding excessive engine revving. After just a few seconds, your vehicle is safe to drive. The vehicle’s engine warms twice as quickly when driven.

3. Warm up the cabin interior by driving, not idling. Easing into your drive is also the best way to get your vehicle’s heating system delivering warmer air faster. Sitting in an idling car means you are breathing in more of the dirty exhaust that leaks into the car cabin. Any warmth you may get from a car heater is not worth the damage to your health. If parked and waiting, it is healthier to get out of your car and go inside a store or building.

4. Protect your car engine by idling less. Frequent restarts are no longer hard on a car’s engine and battery. The added wear (which amounts to no more than $10 a year) is much less costly than the cost of wasted fuel (which can add up to $70-650 a year, depending on fuel prices, idling habits and vehicle type). Idling actually increases overall engine wear by causing the car to operate for longer than necessary.

A final thought

Personally, I find myself overwhelmed by the environmental challenges we’re all facing — it’s daunting to think about the planet as a whole, and the massive scope and complexity of what technology and industry have created for us to deal with. But what I’m coming to see, more clearly now than ever before, is that the first step is almost always changing the little, everyday ways I live. And the good news is that once a new habit is in place, it’s not even noticeable anymore, and I can get on to changing something else. 

Inch by inch…


EMA: http://www.green4ema.org/about-us/
Energy.gov: https://energy.gov/eere/vehicles/fact-861-february-23-2015-idle-fuel-consumption-selected-gasoline-and-diesel-vehicles
Engines Off! Colorado: http://www.enginesoff.com/1_myths.htm
Environmental Defense Fund: https://www.edf.org/climate/reports/idling
Frontier Group: http://frontiergroup.org/blogs/blog/fg/new-report-pervasive-air-pollution-2015

Westword: http://www.westword.com/news/denver-was-one-of-top-ten-smoggiest-metros-in-2016-according-to-new-report-8961838

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