Hybrid and electric vehicle owners are generally pretty
proud of their contribution to easing the environmental impact on the planet’s
fragile ecosystem. But a recent report
published by the EPA
questions the impact of the batteries used by eco-vehicles on health and the
The report highlights a study with the heady title
"Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion
Batteries for Electric Vehicles." The study was performed by the EPA in
partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Li-ion battery industry,
and members of the academic community. The aim of the study was to identify
health and ecological hazards that pertain to the batteries and to take steps
to remediate those issues, if any were found. Improving battery performance while the
technology is still evolving was another focus of the research.
According to the report, the nickel and cobalt used in the
lithium-ion batteries proposes a health hazard to those exposed during their
production. Concerns raised in the study include the health risks of workers in
the manufacturing process, who’ve been found to have an increased incidence of
respiratory and pulmonary problems. Increased risk of neurological problems is
also a concern for those involved in the battery’s production. Additionally,
the study found that the net effect of the production of the batteries actually
increases the effects of climate change. Global resource depletion is also an
issue raised in the study.
Another ecological issue involves the impact of recharging
plug-in batteries in parts of the U.S. – particularly the Mid-west and South,
where coal-fired power plants are used to produce electricity.
Shanika Amarakoon, an Abt Associates analyst involved with
the study said, “These impacts are sensitive to local and regional grid mixes. If
the batteries in use are drawing power from the grids in the Midwest or South,
much of the electricity will be coming from coal-fired plants. If it's in New
England or California, the grids rely more on renewables and natural gas, which
emit less greenhouse gases and other toxic pollutants. However, impacts from
the processing and manufacture of these batteries should not be overlooked."
So what’s the upshot of the EPA study? Lithium (Li-ion) batteries used in hybrid
vehicles and all-electric vehicles present a huge potential asset when it comes
to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but steps must be taken to reduce the
negative impact on the environment and public health. Given time and research, the green vehicle
industry will almost certainly be able to resolve these issues.