Asphalt Could Be Releasing More Emissions Than Cars

Image: Messal Ciula

In the heart of summer, hot asphalt in our cities radiates heat at night causing what’s known as the ubran heat island effect. But a new study published in the journal Science Advances that asphalt is releasing more than heat, it’s emitting harmful air pollutants, especially on hot and sunny days.

As the New Scientist: wrote, while pollution from vehicles is declining in many places–as gasoline and diesel vehicles are replaced with electric ones–pollution from asphalt could actually increase. That’s because climate change is causing higher temperatures, which will trigger more emissions from asphalt.

Why This Matters: In cities, pavement is used in large part for cars which take up way too much space. This space could instead be used for people as well as efforts to fight climate change. Extreme heat in cities is life-threatening and we know that planting trees and creating more green space is one of the simplest and most effective ways to fight heat (along with air pollution and climate change). And now that there’s evidence that asphalt emits toxins, it’s all the more reason to rethink our cities so that they work for people, instead of vehicles.

What’s more, is that planting more trees can help cool existing asphalt, helping to prevent it from releasing toxins.

The Social Justice Aspect: According to the CDC, heat-related deaths occurred most frequently in urban areas and the three states with the highest-burden, Arizona, Texas, and California accounted for 43% of all heat-related deaths. And as CNBC explained, in the U.S., where heat kills more people than any other weather event, Black and Latino people are more likely to reside in hot areas.

These communities that are already vulnerable to extreme heat also subject to higher levels of air pollution than that wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. This is especially troubling as the authors of the study found that asphalt in California’s South Coast Air Basin emitted more secondary organic aerosols in the summer than gas and diesel motor vehicles combined. While it’s still unclear how emissions from asphalt might be compounding the pollution low-income neighborhoods are subjected to, it’s one more reason to look at how cities can turn to alternatives to pavement and depavement for roads that they don’t have the money to fix.


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