Despite Improvements, Low-level Air Pollution Continues to Damage Health in the Region

More than 40 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, and nearly ten years after the release of PlaNYC, the air in the New York region is the cleanest it has been in half a century. On our streets, trucks burn ultra-low-sulfur diesel; cars burn unleaded gas and pass their exhaust through catalytic converters.  In the basements of apartment buildings, boilers burn natural gas instead of residual fuel oil.  In the sky, jet engines are more efficient than ever before, and in the water, oceangoing vessels face emissions standards within two hundred miles of shore.  Improvements to the region’s air are clear successes of progressive public policy and innovative technology.

But more and more evidence indicates that even the lower levels of pollution present in air today are dangerous, meaning policy makers must stay vigilant to drive pollution numbers down even further. A new study by NYU’s Marron Institute for Urban Management and the National Thoracic Society details city and state health impacts caused by air pollution. For example, the study cites 282 deaths annually due to air pollution in the NY-NJ metropolitan area.

Other recent studies have also shown air pollution is associated with illness and death for the general population, not only vulnerable people. Another recent study goes even further, by helping to clarify the mechanism by which low level air pollution causes heart disease.

This research is a reminder that so much of communities’ health is determined not by doctors and health insurance systems but by factors such as the physical environment.  It is also a reminder for policy makers that there is a lot more to do when it comes improving air quality and reducing emissions.  Reductions in traffic congestion, investments in energy-efficient buildings with clean-burning boilers, and upgrading private delivery fleets with hybrids and electric vehicles are all critical to getting pollution out of our air.

You can find out more about how the built environment influences health in the New York metropolitan region here:


Photo: leonem// Flickr Creative Commons

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