City Council Moves on Environmental Health, But What About Tailpipes?

SmogNY.jpgThe Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, covered in smog generated in large part by tailpipe emissions. Image: Wikimedia

The New York City Council moved on two big pieces of environmental legislation last Wednesday. One bill was introduced which would require landlords to participate in a major public experiment to reduce asthma rates. A second, which passed the full council, aims to keep dangerous chemicals out of city parks. Both could be important steps forward for preserving our environment and promoting public health, but you just have to ask, what happened to the internal combustion engine?

New Yorkers shouldn’t have to live in homes where garbage, mold and
rats cause asthma, and they shouldn’t have to play in parks where PCBs
are 110 times the level considered safe. For the city to have a truly clean and healthy environment, elected leaders needs to do more about pollution from cars.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, vehicle emissions contribute more than 80 percent of the total cancer risk from air pollution. The health effects of tailpipe emissions are highest within 500 feet of congested major roadways. The homes of two million New Yorkers are inside that high-risk area, according to another EDF report. In Brooklyn, 35 percent of playgrounds are in the danger zone. EDF also estimates that Queens County has the tenth worst diesel pollution in the country.

More than a million New Yorkers have been diagnosed with asthma, and the harm from automotive pollution is felt most acutely in disadvantaged communities. "Communities living close to highways, high traffic volume and congestion tend to have higher asthma rates and hospitalizations," said Soledad Gaztambide, transportation justice coordinator for the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park. "These communities are mostly low-income communities and communities of color."

Gaztambide identified the upcoming cuts to MTA service as a major step backwards in the fight to keep New York’s environment healthy. "The city and state need to prioritize the creation of new revenue sources for the MTA to divert further service cuts and fare increases," she said. "Funding support from the city and state has remained the same while MTA operating costs continue to grow."

The City Council has the budget powers to give more money to transit, the land use authority to stop filling new development with off-street parking, and the bully pulpit to build support for pedestrian and bike infrastructure in New York’s political culture, just to name a few options at their disposal. If council members want to improve the environment and public health, cars have to be a target.

  • Sorry, Noah, as I’ve been saying for years — and on this site in January — the era in which car exhaust could be used as a club to beat cars over the head is long gone.

    Per mile driven, cars on the road today emit 20-40 times less “harmful” air pollution (PM, CO, NOx, VOC) than they did back on Earth Day. NYC Transit buses are now also much cleaner and other diesel buses and trucks are moving in that direction. This casts doubt on the claim in your post that 80% of the cancer risk in NYC from air pollution is from motor vehicles.

    Nor does the number gain credence from the link you provided, which leads through a 2007 EDF report to what appears to be an EDF pollution “scorecard” of sorts that leads … where? In other words, I for one couldn’t find a reliable cite for the 80% figure. And how can we square the 80% figure with the finding in a report EDF released in December that NYC’s building heating systems release 1.5 times as much particulate matter as cars and trucks?

    We can’t. Please, let’s push the tailpipe menace down the stack of vehicular harms, where it now belongs? MTA service cuts will indeed do great damage — wasting commuters’ valuable time, costing travelers dignity, and making the streets more congested and dangerous. The worsening of our air is a minor issue, by comparison.

  • Noah Kazis

    Charlie, thanks as ever for the substantive criticism. And as you say, we’re doing a lot better than in 1970, thank goodness. But I think you’re overstating your case here.

    On the contradiction you pose, the difference, I believe, is from different cancer risks from different emissions. The second EDF report you link to only says that building heating systems release 1.5 times as much soot (PM) as cars and trucks, not 1.5 times as much total emissions, if I’m reading the stat right. If other pollutants are more carcinogenic, there is not necessarily any contradiction.

    On the data’s sourcing, the “scorecard” leads to a ZIP code-by-ZIP code inventory of air pollution, not something I would call a dead end.

    As for the central argument, that we have in some sense solved tailpipe emissions over the last 40 years, it proves too much. Nearly every emitter in New York is cleaner now than in 1970, and deindustrialization has probably shifted the mix towards cleaner air as well. Yet no one would argue that our air is clean or healthy enough.

    And there’s plenty of research showing that living near a highway increases asthma risk. If cars aren’t emitting at significant levels, how could that be explained?

    New York City’s Department of Health believes that traffic is making us less healthy. Transport for London saw better air quality as a result of their congestion charge. A fight for better environmental health has to include a look at the cars.

    I’m not that interested in ranking the reasons we need to reduce our dependence on the automobile. But we shouldn’t ignore one that remains very important.

  • Noah, I agree with Charlie here. Your case isn’t helped by using a 1988 picture (taken from the top of the World Trade Center!) to illustrate the air pollution problem.

  • Hi again Noah —

    As you’ll see below, I stand by my points. But before taking you back into the weeds, let’s be mindful of what’s at stake. Using arguments that no longer hold water to push for better policy isn’t usually an effective approach. Indeed, I think that an emphasis on air quality is one (admittedly just one) of the reasons that congestion pricing failed politically in 2007-08. Our arguments need to be congruent with reality.

    As to the details:

    * My point about the “Scorecard” is that it doesn’t appear to contain a basis to support your key assertion, that “[V]ehicle emissions contribute more than 80 percent of the total cancer risk from air pollution.”

    * I believe there’s a consensus among public health researchers that soot (PM) dominates the cancer risk from air pollution. That’s what makes the stat I cited from EDF’s December report on heating systems so damning to your “80%” assertion.

    * The rate of reduction in car tailpipe emissions since 1970 far exceeds that from any other major source. The result is that cars’ (and, increasingly, trucks’) responsibility for harmful air pollution in NYC is far smaller, percent-wise, than 40 years ago.

    * To your question of what other than vehicle emissions could cause higher asthma rates in families living near highways, I can offer three hypotheses: (i) poorer housing stock, w/ resultant mold, peeling paint, fumes from heating systems, poor ventilation; (ii) less physical activity; (iii) the possibility that the epi studies at least partially reflect earlier (and obsolete) tailpipe emission rates. Moreover, we would need to know the “coefficient,” i.e., the increased prevalence of asthma per unit of proximity to traffic — is it steep or mild?

    * As for London’s cleaner air from congestion pricing: good for them. Their tailpipe regs are 1-2 decades behind ours, so one would expect that result there, but not necessarily here.

    You close by saying, “I’m not that interested in ranking the reasons we need to reduce our dependence on the automobile. But we shouldn’t ignore one that remains very important.” I submit that, in 2010, car tailpipe pollution is not very important. And we do need to rank the harms caused by vehicle traffic, at least approximately, in order to make sure our campaigns for fewer cars are reasonably tailored to the facts.

  • Noah Kazis

    One more round, Charlie.

    First, I’d reiterate that you’re making a very strong claim, namely that the environmental costs of motor vehicles are essentially trivial, to the point where they ought not even be a part of a larger argument about our use of the automobile. That is a high bar to clear.

    Second, I’m confused about your quibble with EDF’s scorecard. At this link, I have it providing the cancer risk breakdown by mobile, point, and area source polluters for Manhattan, as an example. It seems like it provides the information you’re looking for, no?

    Third, and perhaps most importantly, public health and environmental experts think that traffic is a major polluter. I already mentioned the NYC Dept. of Health. The EPA calls mobile source pollution “the primary cause of air pollution in many urban areas.”

  • Noah, my claim isn’t that “the enviro costs of m.v.’s are essentially trivial,” but that tailpipe emissions, particularly from cars alone, are no longer significant enough to make them a major basis of campaigns for congestion pricing or to otherwise reduce car use.

    Re your scorecard link: thanks, but when you click through you get to this link that reports that “Diesel emissions [from trucks, buses, construxn equipment, etc., not from autos] are the predominant source of cancer risk in Scorecard’s assessment of hazardous air pollutants.” This also applies to your USEPA quote.

    This exchange is informative (at least to us) but kind of weird: the 20-something guy, who came of age in an era when cars were finally clean (more or less) is banging on tailpipe emissions, while the 60-year-old guy who grew up campaigning against auto emissions is saying that the facts have changed and it’s time to move on!

  • Charlie, the chart that the Infrastructurist recently posted says different things. It says that the total US emissions of such particulate matters as NOx and CO have somewhat decreased in the last 20 years, but not by anywhere near a factor of 20-40. For the pollutants with the higher reductions, it’s about 30%.

    Asthma rates are higher in neighborhoods near freeways and bus depots independently of other demographic characteristic. I don’t have a link for this right now, but I can look for it later if you’re interested. While they’ve declined in the last 10 years, they haven’t declined by a factor of 20-40 – more like 1.5-2.

  • Alon: please re-read the second sentence of my first comment: “Per mile driven, cars on the road today emit 20-40 times less ‘harmful’ air pollution than they did back on Earth Day.” The unspoken implication for NYC, where miles driven went up less than two-fold in the same period, is that emissions from cars in NYC are down at least 10-fold.

    If that’s the case, then there’s not much left in the way of car tailpipe emissions to be squeezed out. For the most part, the benefit of reducing car exhaust in NYC has already been achieved.

    You’re quite right that one would expect to find higher asthma rates near highways and bus depots, independent of demographic differences. The question is how strong is that relationship?; and is it weakening over time as highway vehicles and even notoriously noxious bus depots get cleaner? But if you find the link, please pass it on, thanks.

    More broadly, the question raised by Noah’s post is the extent to which reducing car use would reduce pollution-related morbidity and mortality in NYC. From everything I’ve looked at, I believe the answer is: not by much. Indeed, I’ll wager that for each auto removed from the traffic stream, the resulting increase in physical activity (as more people are enabled and emboldened to walk and bike) will have a greater social net benefit than the improvement in air quality.

  • I still don’t have time to dig up links – I probably will tonight. But my recollection is that East Harlem’s asthma rate is still twice city average, and that while this ratio has gone down, it’s not gone down a lot.

    The estimate for how much damage cars do from air pollution have a huge range. A couple of months ago there was a government study whose numbers worked out to about 50 cents per gallon, not including GHG. At the other end, an environmental organization put the range at 50 cents-$5/gal in 1999. Greg Mankiw estimated $2.11/gal in 2003, though nowadays he advocates for a $1/gal gas tax, as part of a carbon tax program (though he justifies it using other externalities, including air pollution and congestion).

  • “Noah, I agree with Charlie here. Your case isn’t helped by using a 1988 picture (taken from the top of the World Trade Center!) to illustrate the air pollution problem.”

    That is, a poorly exposed 1988 picture taken from the top of the World Trade Center through double thick glass and backlit by the hazy sun.

  • Peter from Stuy Town

    How come the guy who run his car exhaust in closed garage failed to commit suicide? Answer: his wife switched cars and left him the Prius.

    Ba-da-dum. OK, I’m a lousy joke teller but here’s the point: whether you go by the figures Charlie cites or those of EDF, I don’t see how targeting car emissions is a realistic use of resources.

    By 2016, automakers have to meet a 35 mpg standard. That means weight reduction and more use of hybrids, electric, hydrogen (in the future and whatever else makes sense. Less pollution will result. And the long-term predictions for private auto ownership/use in urban environments is that it will contract, not grow.

    For once, it looks like the realities of the free market, fuel taxes, higher fuel costs, transit, societal attitudes and lifestyle changes are moving in synch with our mutual goal of reduced auto dependency. Maybe I’m missing something, but what benefit will pushing for punitive and politically difficult laws add?

  • Okay, the only data I can find is from 2000 – the city doesn’t deign to publish more recent numbers.

    Anyway, asthma rates in New York went down in the late 1990s, after an increase in the early 1990s. There was a net decrease, but it was a factor of 1.5 from the 1993 peak, not a factor of 20-40 (link). Nationwide there was a smaller decline, of about 20%.

    I can’t find the income-controlled data yet, but I’ve seen it and I’m going to look again in the weekend, when I have more than an hour of internet time per day.

    35 mpg doesn’t actually do that much. The problem is that the numbers are inflated, especially in cities. For example: hybrid buses generally get 5.3 mpg. But in New York, they get 4 mpg. Stop-and-go traffic causes more gas consumption per mile you drive. Stop-and-go traffic also causes more local pollution, especially near freeway interchanges.

  • Alon: Read this: ” … hospitalizations for asthma, a scourge of poorer neighborhoods, have plummeted …,” according to a 2007 NYT article reporting on a study by the office of the NYC Comptroller.

    But even that bit of excellent news isn’t necessary to demonstrate my point (that car exhaust has also “plummeted” as a source of public harm in NYC). Asthma has many causes and many triggers, of which car exhaust is merely one. Thus, while it’s almost certain that the drop in car (and truck and bus) exhaust is a cause of the excellent asthma news, it’s not necessarily the dominant cause (I don’t know the factors, and am not sure the public health professionals do, either).

    Peter from Stuy Town: add congestion pricing to your list of “realities” (well, almost), and I’ll pretty much agree with you.

  • Peter from Stuy Town

    Yes, I forgot to mention congestion pricing — here’s hoping.

  • Charles, I didn’t see the comment until now. Yes, asthma rates have fallen, by about 50% from their mid-1990s peak. They’re still several times the national average. And asthma is just one indicator of poor air quality. There are others, such as lung cancer. Because the city has been aggressively clamping down on asthma, treating it better before it requires hospitalization, it may not be as accurate an indicator of general air quality anymore. Think of it as the public health equivalent of teaching to the test.

    Just in one of the newer threads, another commenter posted a link to a study done in Toronto about air pollution directly attributed to cars. It estimates a local cost of C$2.2 billion (95% CI $1.1-4.1) as of 2004 coming from excess mortality alone; with the emissions data it gives, you can compute gas consumption, which yields an air pollution mortality cost of about US$2/gal. It also gives a nice lit review about how proximity to roads worsens people’s health. While the rates of some of the pollutants it cites have decreased in recent years, for example carbon monoxide, the rates of others have increased, for example ozone.

  • tom murphy

    Makes sense now: Sarah Palin’s father moved the family to Alaska. Less asthma; less traffic.


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