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Published: Saturday, 4/2/2005

Out the tailpipe

AH, WEASEL words. Only in the nation's capital, where obfuscation is an art form, could the auto industry hope to get away with claiming that today's cars are "virtually emission-free."

An advertisement with that bold - and demonstrably false - assertion about tailpipe pollution has been running in publications circulating on Capitol Hill in Washington as well as in at least one automotive trade publication.

The ad, which features a cute little boy in a child's car seat, is sponsored by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying group that includes General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Toyota, Mazda, Volkswagen, Porsche, Mitsubishi, and BMW.

"Your car may never be spotless, but it's 99 percent cleaner than you think," the ad rhapsodizes. "Autos manufactured today are virtually emission-free. And that's a dramatic improvement over models from just 30 years ago."

While it is true that tailpipe emissions have been reduced significantly over the past three decades, it doesn't taken a PhD to know that internal combustion engines in cars still produce an abundance of dirty exhaust that impacts the environment and human health on a broad scale.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, automobile "tailpipe emissions" include nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide. Together, they cause smog, acid rain, and a variety of dangerous health problems and deadly diseases.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that a typical modern car, the 2004 Toyota Camry, produces 307.3 pounds of carbon monoxide annually, along with 8.5 pounds of nitrogen oxides, 6.9 pounds of hydrocarbons, and 9,566 pounds of carbon dioxide.

That hardly qualifies as "virtually emission-free," in any vocabulary.

The lame excuse offered by a spokesman for the manufacturers is that carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, no longer is classified by the government as an air pollutant - a policy reversal by Bush Administration appointees that has caused an understandable wave of controversy. But the ad makes no such distinction.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates higher fuel-economy requirements and more stringent emission limits, likens the ad's liberties with the truth to cigarette makers who used to claim that smoking wasn't harmful.

If the auto makers' claims didn't constitute an egregious case of false advertising, they would be laughable. Sad to say, stretching the truth until it is unrecognizable has become a routine tactic in the nation's capital.

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