Tackling Air Quality in NYC

It has long been understood that poor air quality leads to poor health outcomes, especially for vulnerable populations like seniors and children. Concentrations of particulate matter (PM) and ozone (O3) are the specific compounds of air pollution most associated with health issues like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.  Air pollution is responsible for both a climate crisis, and a major contributor to a public health crisis. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, indoor and outdoor air pollution is directly responsible for 1 in 9 deaths worldwide.

Locally, the NYC Metro area is ranked #6 out of all U.S. cities in annual excess mortality due to poor air quality, with an excess of 188 deaths per year according to the 2019 Health of the Air Report by NYU Marron Institute and ATS.  Their data suggests these health outcomes are mostly due to ground level ozone more than particulate matter, as health impacts associated with PM dropped dramatically from 2010-2017 while ozone related impacts have remained stagnant.  Ozone is formed when pollutants emitted from sources like power plants, vehicles, and boilers react with sunlight.  

The NYC Council Committee on Environmental Protection recently held a hearing to discuss air quality and three bills that seek to improve it.  Intro. 960 seeks to redefine heavy use thoroughfares to encompass more areas and increase air quality monitoring in these heavy use thoroughfares.  Intro. 980 would accelerate the timeline to phase out the use of number 4 heating oil.  Number 4 heating oil was originally scheduled for phase out by 2030, but this bill would make the deadline 2025.  Lastly, Intro 992 would ensure the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) tracks all reports of non compliance at power plants to improve accountability.

Air quality improvements are some of the indicators included in our NYC Climate Tracker

Our Associate for NYC Programs, Carlos Castell Croke, testified in support of the bills, particularly Intros 980 and 960.  In his testimony, Carlos stated that a large portion of indoor and outdoor air pollution comes from the burning of dirty heating oils in our buildings and the use of Number 4 heating oil disproportionately occurs in neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status, therefore contributing to environmental injustice in NYC.  The emissions released from burning Number 4 heating oil are correlated with higher frequencies of cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis, and death.

Carlos argued that the current schedule for phasing out Number 4 heating oil from residential buildings– January of 2030– is not aggressive enough: accelerating the deadline to 2025 is a step the city can take to accelerate meeting the air quality goals spelled out in OneNYC as well as providing incentives for new heating technology, beneficial electrification and energy efficiency.

He also made a point to mention the importance of phasing out dirty diesel school buses and transitioning to a fully electric fleet.  Children and their developing lungs in particular are highly susceptible to particulate matter and air pollutants.  This is why the number one reason for NYC school absenteeism is asthma, a respiratory illness that is often onset by growing up in areas with poor air quality.

He added that to maximize climate and health benefits, priority for this school bus transition should be for fleets that are older, those with high vehicle miles traveled, and those traveling in and around environmental justice communities.  This explains NYLCV’s support for Int. 960, because it will monitor air quality along heavy use thoroughfares, which they think will emphasize the heavy air pollution burden children in low income communities bear and the need to electrify school buses and other heavy duty fleets.

Carlos’ full testimony can be viewed here.