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What’s in Vehicle Exhaust, Anyway?

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A lot of discussions about vehicle emissions regulations revolve around the various gasses and chemicals released in car and truck exhaust. So, it probably helps to know what exactly is in car exhaust that is so harmful. On that note, the Union of Concerned Scientists lists six major pollutants that come out of vehicle tailpipes.

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The first, mostly associated with diesel vehicles, is particulate matter. This is generally the black stuff you see when you look at car exhaust (and what makes those huge plumes when someone is “rolling coal”). These can get into your lungs and do really bad things, contributing to respiratory problems like asthma and even causing cancer.



VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound, which includes chemicals like benzene and acetaldehyde. When mixed with nitrogen oxides and some sunlight, these make ozone near the ground. That may sound not so bad, since ozone is what protects our planet, but that’s only when it’s way up in the atmosphere. At ground level, it makes smog and irritates people’s lungs, causing coughing. Like particulate matter, scientists have linked VOCs to cancer.


Nitrogen oxides

Nitrogen oxide is a gas that comes up a lot when talking about diesel. Nitrogen oxides combine with VOCs to form ground-level ozone (which forms smog and acid rain), and is often listed as toxic.


Carbon monoxide

Most people know that carbon monoxide is dangerous, due to the many warnings and house codes mandating carbon monoxide alarms. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, and when inhaled binds to your blood’s hemoglobin, blocking oxygen from getting to your brain and vital organs.


Sulfur dioxide

Sulfur dioxide results when you burn fuels with sulfur in them, like diesel or coal. Like all the gasses on this list, sulfur dioxide irritates your respiratory system, especially affecting children, elderly people, and people with asthma. Sulfur dioxide also can help form acid rain, and create more particulate matter than exhaust already has.


Greenhouse gases

Probably the most contentious of the gasses in vehicle exhaust are greenhouse gasses. Primarily, this includes carbon dioxide, which helps contribute to global warming and climate change. The EPA estimates that more than a quarter of all greenhouse gasses emitted in the US are from transportation, of which 83 percent comes from personal vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

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News Sources: Union of Concerned Scientists, EPA, Science ABC,