Idling Happens

(Lexington Minuteman - May 18, 2006)

Did you receive a flier entitled "Idle Free Lexington" along with your January property tax bill?

The Lexington Health Department, along with a committee of diverse composition, is working on reducing vehicle emissions in Lexington in a campaign called "Idle Free Lexington". Thanks to grant money from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, every taxpayer in Lexington was mailed a copy of this pamphlet from the Board of Health describing the anti-idling campaign. If you did not receive a copy of this pamphlet or wish to read further about this issue, visit

Is "Idle Free Lexington" a call to arms against laziness? No. Actually, it refers to the idea that when and if we drive a vehicle, we should not idle this vehicle before or after driving. We all know that idling a vehicle in one's own garage is harmful to one's health. But the same is true when idling a vehicle in the open air, the difference being that the effects are not immediately noticeable as you are not in an enclosed space.

Incomplete combustion from running your vehicle gives off nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), both of which contribute to acid rain. About 37% of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere currently come from motor vehicles. NO and NO2 also contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, affect the acidification of soil causing changes in the development of nitrogen loving species, and foster the over development of micro-flora in lakes creating a lack of oxygen in the water, which kills aquatic wildlife. Acid rain also slows forest growth, and can injure trees irreparably.

Hydrocarbons (HC), another vehicle emission, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with sunlight and heat to produce low-level ozone (O3), the main ingredient in photochemical smog. Ozone is the single most important pollutant affecting vegetation. It damages food crops and forests (pines are particularly sensitive). Ground level ozone interferes with the ability of plants to make and store food, thus making them more sensitive to disease, insects, and harsh weather.

Other byproducts of combustion include carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane, all of which are greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions have by now been conclusively proven as the cause of the world's growing problem with global warming and the dangers of rapid climate change. Motor vehicle use accounts for 20-25% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Each gallon of gasoline is responsible for releasing 25 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere (5 pounds during the production process and 20 pounds out the tailpipe). Every pound of CO2 released into the atmosphere today will be around for the next 7200 years (Seth Kaplan lecture, April 30, 2006).

Finally and most importantly, vehicle emissions have profound affects on human health. Clearly, clean air is important to all living creatures. Certain diesel emissions are carcinogenic, and can exacerbate asthma and heart disease in human beings. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk.

Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 90, Section 16 A states that: "No person shall cause, suffer, allow, or permit the unnecessary operation of the engine of a motor vehicle while said vehicle is stopped for a foreseeable period in excess of five minutes." This law was written for the environmental and health reasons mentioned above.

Some Idling Facts:

What Can you Do?:

In an ideal world, people would walk, bike, or use mass transit to go from one place to another. This would be healthier for us and for the environment. What we can do is remember that when we stop a vehicle, do not idle.

GWAC Lecture Event: The next event in this year’s GWAC Lecture series will feature Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, speaking on her new book “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change”. Called a “Silent Spring” for our time, Kolbert’s book asks what can be done to save our planet. This event will be held on May 21 at 7:30 pm at Cary Hall, Lexington. Admission is free with a book signing available following the talk. Copies of Kolbert’s book will be available for purchase at the event.

Brought to you by Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition. Contact us at