NASCAR zooms in as Chicago struggles with dangerous air quality. Will running make things worse?

DOWNTOWN Three days after Chicago’s air was temporarily rated the worst in the world, 40 race cars will take to the streets of Downtown to race a total of 341 miles around Grant Park.

What does this mean for Chicago air quality?

NASCAR race cars are generally unregulated and not required by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to have pollution mitigation devices such as catalytic converters, whose emissions from the cars are less toxic.

Without pollution regulation, race cars could be 50 to 100 times more polluting than your average car, according to Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago.

Even so, that still may not be enough to worsen local air quality as much as one might think, scientists say.

Standard NASCAR race cars go about five miles per gallon, according to numerous racing publications. If each car completes 341 miles of racing (which NASCAR officials say is unlikely), nearly 2,800 gallons of fuel will be burned and emitted.

Michael Wang, interim division director for energy systems and infrastructure analysis at Argonne National Laboratory, analyzed these calculations and determined that this is the equivalent of the annual emissions of about five cars.

The pollution caused by a one-off event still doesn’t compare to the emissions of more than 1 million cars driving through the city every day, Wang said.

YES [NASCAR] it has emissions, but it’s a one-time issue [E]our daily commute missions will remain, Wang said.

ScottCollis, an atmospheric scientist at Argonne, agreed.

While individual actions matter, the actual impact of just a few vehicles on a city of 3 million is relatively small, Collis said. By closing the roads and keeping other vehicles away from that area, it is unlikely to have bad air quality.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Race cars are parked during a press event announcing that Chicago will host a first-of-its-kind NASCAR Street Race on July 19, 2022.

Since 2011, NASCAR cars have used a corn-based ethanol called Sunoco Green E15. This gasoline blended with 15 percent corn, although it still releases greenhouse gases, has lower emissions than other fuels typically used by everyday drivers, experts say.

Since switching to E15, NASCAR estimates it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, according to a 2022 press release. The company also has a goal of net zero emissions by 2035.

Our cars use E10. [NASCAR] they’ve already switched to E15, so they’re ahead of regulars like you and me, Wang said.

NASCAR also plans to install 500 recycling bins, 36 hydration stations to fill water bottles and solar-powered light towers at the site, a NASCAR spokesperson said. The company also plans to partner with United Rentals Power to have battery-assisted power instead of running its trailers on generators all day.

NASCAR will release comprehensive emissions measurements for this weekend to monitor the impact of the events, a spokesman said.

Peter Orris, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois hospital, agreed the emissions from the ride won’t have much of an effect in the long run.

They only work for one day and the amount of internal combustion cars, trucks etc. that we still have, especially in the downtown area, contributes far more to pollution in an average period of time, Orris said.

Credit: Provided
The NASCAR Chicago course.

What health precautions should NASCAR fans take?

While the short-term pollution may not be as bad, fans going to the race should still be aware of the pollutants the cars create, experts said.

Racing cars also emit volatile organic compounds, a pollutant that causes the formation of ozone and smog, which are carcinogenic. When fuel burns, it creates nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide. The sun’s heat then causes these compounds to create smog, the scientists said.

Ozone burns lung passages, causes tissue to swell and can make breathing difficult and uncomfortable as well as trigger asthma attacks, Urbaszewski said.

People in NASCAR booths with asthma or comorbidities should be cautious because being surrounded by race cars could likely lead to unhealthy air levels, Orris said. Air pollution can have an acute impact on asthma, chronic lung disease and heart conditions, with a delay of 24 to 48 hours, she said.

Anything that in general increases [air pollution], it’s not something from a health point of view that we want to stimulate. But the balance here is that this isn’t made for that purpose. It’s not meant to boost people’s health, its entertainment, Orris said.

It is important to check the air quality before going to the race. The American Lung Association recommends checking the Air Quality Index online. As of Wednesday, air quality was still considered very unhealthy, a category where people are advised to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and keep time outdoors short.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Construction continues for the upcoming NASCAR Chicago Street Race on June 28, 2023.

Air quality is expected to moderate by the weekend. MimiGuiracocha, head of health promotions for the American Lung Association, said people should still avoid the outdoors if the air quality is labeled as unhealthy.

If the air quality is good, participants should still watch out for signs of dizziness, lightheadedness and shortness of breath, as air pollution can make breathing more difficult, Guiracocha said.

Participants should also be sure to take care of their hearing while participating in the race event, experts said.

During a NASCAR race, noise levels can range from 95 to 98 decibels according to Mike Hefferly, a RUSH University audiologist. A conservative estimate from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that an individual should not go more than 30 minutes without protection at that sound level.

Your best bet is to wear earplugs labeled at least 25dB, Hefferly said. A single pair can cost around $1; a 12-pack from Target is about $5.

So as long as they are used correctly, this is really what people need. Now you’ll see in televised events where they have these big earmuffs on that can be very effective as well, Hefferly said.

Any prolonged muffled hearing or ringing in the ears that lasts more than 24 hours may indicate hearing damage. At this point an individual should contact their primary care physician.

Participants can also prepare their ears ahead of time by avoiding loud events and activities leading up to the race, Hefferly said.

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