Flawed 1995 CMU Study on the Electric Car

This is excerpted from pages 236--239 of The Car That Could by Michael Shnayerson, published in 1996 by Random House.

In early May [1995], three researchers from Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University published in Science the more alarming results of a study done on the potential hazards associated with mining, smelting, and recycling the lead that a large fleet of lead acid-powered EVs would need. Before publication, the study found its way to The New York Times, which reported it in a front page story on May 9, 1995. "This could be the kiss of death for electric vehicles," declared one environmental economist quoted in the piece. "Lead particles can move long distances," observed a toxicologist. "This is potentially a global problem."

Using the Impact [GMs original name for the EV1] as their example of "available technology, the researchers concluded that if just 5 percent of the 200 million vehicles in the US were displaced by lead acid EVs, as much as 21,000 tons of lead would be released into the atmosphere each year from the mining needed to unearth the extra lead, the smelting needed to manufacture batteries from it, and the further emissions arising from recycling it. That would be twice as much lead as was currently released each year, after decades in which lead levels had been steadily reduced with cleaner gasoline, lead-free paint, and other precautions. "Getting rid of lead in gasoline was one of the great public health triumphs of our generation," declared Lester Lave, one of the study's three authors. "It would be a tragedy if we reversed the benefits in the name of environmentalism."

The chapter goes on to list several errors in the study, the most serious of which is this:

To estimate how much lead was lost during mining and smelting, the authors used U.S. Bureau of Mines statistics for a forty-nine-year period ending in 1988, and concluded that 1 percent of lead was lost as emissions during manufacturing. But the statistics meant nothing, since most of the period they covered predated relevant environmental regulations. Under Clean Air Act standards, current losses came to 1/200 of that level. In fact, while battery production in the U.S. had nearly doubled in the last fifteen years, the average lead concentrations in Americans' blood had fallen by 78 percent. The study suggested that residents living near a lead plant might be more vulnerable to lead emissions. But measurements taken of lead in water near a the Electrosource plant in Austin, Texas, revealed no more than one-tenth the level allowed by federal standards, with most measurements far lower than that. And while toxicologists were right to warn against lead particles in the air, almost no lead escaped into the air during manufacturing; the few emissions still associated with the process were mostly solid slag, which did not migrate, and was easily recycled.

So the study had a half dozen major errors, all of which worked together to make it appear that the lead pollution problem was orders of magnitude bigger than it actually was. Nobody accuses the authors (L.B. Lave, C.T. Hendrikson and F.C. McMichael) of being shills for the auto industry. But ask yourself, would this article have been publishable in the prestigeous journal Science if it had concluded blandly that lead-acid powered electric cars do not pose an environmental hazzard?

Lester Lave along with another author Heather MacLean continue to dismiss electric and hybrid vehicles here: Are Hybrid Vehicles Worth it?. Here's a quote:

... the battery-powerd cars built by GM .. and Toyota. Both companies have discontinued manufacturing these "pure electric" vehicles after investing nearly half a billion dollars in R&D and millions more in promotion and subsidies. The cars simply failed to find a market.

A we know from "Who Killed the Electric Car?" the statment that they simply "failed to find a market" is a glib dismissal of a much more complex situation.

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Danny Sleator
Last modified: Tue Aug 22 15:17:02 2006