Vehicles and equipment used to move people, goods and fuel can affect the air we breathe.

Using gasoline, diesel or other fuels to power transportation pollutes the air and harms human health. Shifting to zero-emission transportation – like walking and biking and electric vehicles – has powerful benefits for lung health.

Dirty transportation affects the air we breathe

  • Tailpipe emissions from cars, SUVs, trucks and other vehicles are the source of significant air pollutants. Burning gasoline and diesel fuel contributes particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, as well as carbon dioxide, into the air. While not transportation vehicles, heavy equipment like tractors and bulldozers have similar tailpipe emissions.
  • Ocean-going marine vessels are also a major source of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particle pollution emissions. There are much higher concentrations of sulfur in their fuel than domestic diesel.
  • Aircraft emissions cross the nation, and include nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, particle pollution, and hazardous air pollutants. Lead is not used in jet airplanes, but it is still used in smaller piston-engine powered aircraft.
  • Locomotives – train engines – are typically powered by diesel. These diesel fuel emissions particularly impact communities near railyards.
  • Pipelines are part of the transportation network too. More than two million miles of pipelines carry fuels like crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products from the wellhead to the refinery and to markets. Pollutants can leak out, affecting communities both near and far.

Transportation emissions affect some communities more than others.

  • Areas near high-traffic roadways often have much higher levels of pollution than the rest of the community. Millions of people in the U.S. live or work near enough to a busy road to experience significantly higher levels of pollution.
  • Areas near airports serving smaller aircraft can have high levels of lead. Lead is still used in fuel for smaller aircraft, which are generally used for instructional flying, air taxi activities, agricultural use and personal transportation.
  • Port communities have emissions from ships and barges, but they also have trucks, trains and heavy equipment used to transfer goods to and from the ships. International shipping brings vessels with higher emissions into port.
  • Low-income communities and communities of color often bear a disproportionate burden of transportation emissions because many major transportation facilities (major highways, rail yards, freight depots, and ports) are located in and near these neighborhoods.

Zero-Emission Transportation Improves Lung Health

Access to safe routes to walk and bike; the use of clean public transportation; and a transition to zero-emission vehicles are all important ways to reduce the lung health impacts of dirty transportation. Reports from the Lung Association have found that a nationwide transition to zero-emission vehicles and electricity generation will save lives, avoid millions of asthma attacks and lost workdays and help address climate change. Learn more.

Policy to Clean Up the Transportation Sector

The Lung Association advocates for policies that drive a nationwide transition to zero-emission transportation, and that reduce emissions from vehicles powered by gas, diesel and other fuels in the meantime. Learn more about our advocacy and policy work on cleaning up the transportation sector, and take action, with our Healthy Air Campaign.

Page last updated: October 26, 2023

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