During the spring, buried in the thickets of the debate over congestion pricing,
was a great nugget in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s
PlaNYC 2030. Deep in the document was a promise: if PlaNYC 2030 was implemented,
New York City would become the “cleanest big city in America.”
That got me thinking.
How clean is the air in New York City?
The short answer is that the nation’s air is cleaner than it’s been
in decades, and so is New York’s. But New York City air is still polluted
enough to send thousands of people to emergency rooms every summer and to send
some of those people to early graves every year.
The longer answer is more complicated, and it goes like this:
Since 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agencyhas set standards for the maximum amount of air pollution that is safe to breathe.
In a city like New York, ozone (a principal ingredient of smog) and particulate
matter (or soot) are the key pollutants—and the city has never met EPA’s
standards for either pollutant. In each case, we are in the second-worst category
(Los Angeles tops the "most polluted list" for both smog and soot).
By this measure, the city seems to be in pretty bad pollution shape—especially
because many environmental groups think that the current EPA standards are too
Soot particles are the biggest pollution concern. A decade ago, the Natural Resources
Defense Council (where I worked then, and now)
64,000 Americans died prematurely every year at then-current levels of particulate
air pollution. More than 4,000 people of those
premature deaths were in the New York metropolitan region.
In New York, diesel engines have long been at the heart of our local soot problem.
When walking up Madison Avenue, most of the soot we breathe comes from a relatively
small number of diesel engines—buses, trucks, and construction equipment.
In more residential neighborhoods, home heating oil is diesel’s close—and
Sources of Particulate Soot on Madison Avenue
Diesel (and home heating oil) soot is really toxic stuff. If it’s not
effectively filtered in the tailpipe, typical diesel exhaust contains dozens
of cancer-causing chemicals. This toxic soup has been found to be at least
a probable or likely human carcinogen by many of the world’s leading
public health agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
the National Toxicology Program and regulators in Germany, California and elsewhere.
Luckily, diesel soot pollution is a fixable problem. As of this year, all new
diesel truck and bus engines are equipped with filters that remove more than
90 percent of this soot. And, NYC Transit buses have used these filters effectively
for several years now, reducing their fleet-wide emissions by more than 95
percent since 1995. But most trucks, buses, and construction equipment don't
have these filters.
So, in 2005, the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force revisited the soot problem,
and focused on the specific problem of diesel soot. The task force estimated
that people in Manhattan inhale enough toxic soot particles to create a lifetime
cancer risk that is more than 3,200 times EPA’s so-called “acceptable” cancer
risk. It gets even worse: According to the task force, more than 40,000 asthma
attacks and almost 1,800 premature deaths were
attributable to diesel soot pollution in neighborhoods throughout the city
in 1999. That’s why the American Lung Association recently
gave the City
an “F” for its particulate soot levels.
But is the air really so horrible? As I write, the sky outside my window is
bright blue. My daily “EnviroFlash” email
from EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation tells
me that today’s pollution levels are “good” for both particles
OK, I know better: EPA and environmental conservation department give a regional
estimate. That estimate tells me nothing about local conditions. Recent studies
show that diesel soot emissions along roadways create corridors of increased
pollution, which leads to higher health impacts. Perhaps the most famous example
can be found in northern Manhattan: With five Metropolitan Transit Authority
bus depots and several busy north-south truck routes, Harlem and Washington
Heights have higher air pollution levels—and much higher asthma rates—than
their southern neighborhoods.
All of this underscores two important themes. First, it is important to acknowledge
that we’ve made significant progress in reducing many sources of air
pollution over the years, and our air is cleaner as a result. But, second,
it is equally important to understand the job isn’t finished—we
still fail to meet EPA’s health standards for ozone and particulate soot,
and we need to create new ways to address the remaining sources of air pollution
that seem to be pocketed in certain areas of the city.
Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 strives to ensure that “every New
Yorker” should breathe the cleanest air of any big city in America. We’re
not there yet. Next month, I’ll dive into the plan and explore whether
the plan will us meet his goal.
Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at
the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he focuses on urban air
pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation
Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization, and is on the boards
of the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives.
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