Most Americans associate platinum with credit cards, the music business or fine jewelry, not with air pollution. But the fact remains that the biggest user of the precious metal is actually the air pollution control industry.
Platinum, usually in very fine coatings, is used as a catalyst in most catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters to rid exhaust emissions of dangerous soot, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Those emissions are major causes of respiratory illness, asthma and lung cancer.
But with growing population and industrialization around the world, coupled with increasing environmental awareness and regulation, the demand for platinum has soared, driving prices upwards. Plus, South Africa, which supplies 78% of the world's platinum, has seen a recent mine shutdown, sending prices of the metal up 41%. Last month platinum cost almost twice as much as it did exactly a year ago, and more than three times as much as it did five years ago.
So what does this mean for consumers? According to pollution control manufacturer CleanAir Systems there is likely to be some increase in the price tag of new cars and trucks, to reflect more expensive catalytic converters. Hospitals, schools, data centers and others who use diesel backup generators are going to face higher prices in order to stay pollution compliant. The prices of some other goods may also rise, as companies have to pay more for new controls on trucks and heavy machinery.
Unfortunately, high platinum prices mean it is going to be more difficult for cash-strapped school districts to retrofit old buses with modern pollution controls. That process, ongoing for several years, has been cited as a major priority by green groups, as well as the Bush administration, since it has such a big impact on our nation's children (who have developing lungs and immune systems, and are therefore most susceptible to damage from particulate pollution).
The one silver, I mean platinum, lining to the metal's high value is that it has long had a very high recycling and recovery rate, with junkyards doing a good business collecting and selling used catalytic converters and other devices. With higher prices, it seems likely that even more of the metal will be reclaimed.
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