Air pollution kills thousands of New Yorkers each year
Air quality has a big impact on health. We have the ability to significantly improve New York's air – if we choose to.
In early June New Yorkers endured terrible air quality. Wildfires in Canada blanketed our city in smoke, pushed the air quality index up to 405, and had government officials recommending that everyone stay indoors.1 This experience made me curious about air quality in general, so I dug into the topic and learned that:
Air pollution is serious: it kills 2,400+ NYC residents each year (6% of all deaths!)
It’s caused by humans: vehicles, heating, and cooking are New York’s biggest air pollution sources
It’s within our power to fix: the city passed laws in 2010 and 2015 that reduced sulfur dioxide in the city’s air by 97%
Air pollution is a serious problem
Humans (and all land-based animals) breathe air to extract its oxygen. We use the oxygen in our cells as part of reactions that convert sugar into energy. That’s why when you’re exercising you breathe more heavily to provide more oxygen to your cells to power your extra exertion.
Air on earth is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other stuff. That 1% includes fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, black carbon, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide which, when inhaled, contribute to cancer, heart disease, lung disease, asthma, and strokes.2
Each year fine particle and ozone pollution in New York City is responsible for almost 2,400 premature deaths and more than 6,000 admissions to hospitals and emergency departments.3 That is 6% of all deaths in our city.4 A 2021 Columbia University study estimated that decreasing fine particulate matter in the city’s air by just 23% would have annual economic benefits of $6.4 billion to $15.4 billion in avoided illness and death, which would be equivalent to raising all New Yorkers’ incomes by 2%.5
Poor air quality is mostly invisible and the negative health impacts of breathing bad air are only seen after many years. However, if contaminated drinking water were killing thousands of New Yorkers each year I think it would be front-page news. Everyone who could afford to would immediately switch to other water or food sources. Alas, the dangers of poor air quality are underappreciated.
Most air pollution in NYC comes from burning things
The “quality” of air is inversely proportional to the amount of harmful gasses and particles in it. “Good quality” air contains little or no harmful gasses or particles. “Poor” air quality – like what New York experienced with the wildfire smoke – has high rates of these harmful substances. The specific substances that environmental protection agencies monitor are nitrogen oxides, black carbon, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter.
Most of New York’s air pollution is caused by people burning fossil fuels for commercial cooking, transportation, and heating buildings.6 The charts below using data from the Environmental Protection Agency break down the sources of fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides in New York City’s air:
I was very surprised to see that commercial cooking is the source of 37% of New York City’s fine particulate matter. You can explore all the data in this spreadsheet I made.
Improving New York’s air quality
Releasing less pollutants into the air is the best way to improve air quality. We’ve had success in the past in reducing air pollution, and there are opportunities ahead to further improve New York’s air.
During spring 2020, when COVID-related shutdowns reduced traffic volumes and closed many businesses, there was a 25% reduction in fine particulate matter and a 29% reduction in nitrogen dioxide in the city’s air compared to the previous year.7 This effect was especially strong in Midtown Manhattan, which has many densely packed buildings and lots of traffic:
Of course, shutting down most human activity and telling everyone to stay home is not an appealing way to improve air quality. Fortunately, New York’s city and state governments have enacted policies over the past decade to reduce emissions of pollutants while keeping activity going.
Reducing Transportation Emissions
The most impactful ways to reduce transportation-related air pollution are to switch to electric vehicles, use regenerative braking (which wears down brake pads less), and reduce overall driving. The main sources of transportation-related pollution are burning fossil fuels in internal combustion engines and the fine particulate matter that is released as tires encounter friction on the ground and brake pads decelerate vehicles.
New York has implemented several policies to reduce transportation’s harm to air quality:
Banning fossil fuel vehicles: New York State passed a law in 2021 that will require all new cars and trucks sold in the state after 2035 to be zero-emissions. Nothing in the law restricts existing ICE vehicles from driving and people can still import vehicles from other states.
Restricting idling: In 2018 New York City strengthened laws that prohibit gas and diesel vehicles from idling for more than three minutes. These laws are (in theory, at least) enforced by the Department of Environmental Protection and by members of the public, who can receive monetary rewards for submitting information that results in a fine being issued.
Congestion pricing: In early 2024 New York will start charging tolls on driving in Manhattan below 60th Street. This system is projected to reduce driving in Midtown and Lower Manhattan by 9.2%, which will lead to a 9% reduction in particulate matter in Manhattan’s air.
These policies to restrict transportation-related pollution are also complemented by policies to make other forms of low-pollution mobility more appealing, such as constructing bus lanes, increasing subway service, and making biking safer.
Other cities have taken some innovative measures to reduce driving of the most polluting vehicles:
Most of London is an Ultra Low Emissions Zone in which drivers of vehicles that fail to meet certain emissions standards must pay a daily fee of £12.50 ($16). Since the system was introduced in 2019 the proportion of vehicles that don’t meet the emissions standard has halved from 13% to 6%.8
France requires all vehicles to display a government-issued windshield sticker that indicates how polluting the vehicle is on a scale of 1 to 6. Each city then sets their own policies on which types of vehicles are allowed to drive in which areas at which times of day. Paris has been progressively tightening its restrictions. By 2030 between 8am and 8pm on weekdays only electric vehicles will be allowed to drive inside Paris.9
I think it would be great for New York’s governments to evaluate implementing these more stringent and precisely targeted restrictions on the most polluting vehicles.
Reducing Building Heating Emissions
Reducing air pollution caused by building heating requires switching to less polluting fuels. Most New York City buildings are heated by burning oil in a boiler in the building’s basement, which releases lots of pollutants into the city’s air. As someone who grew up in places where electricity is the primary heating source, this seems archaic. Switching from heating buildings by burning fossil fuels to less polluting heating methods is a straightforward way to reduce emissions.
This is an area where New York has made considerable progress. In 2010 and 2015 the city passed laws forbidding the use of especially polluting heating oils with high sulfur content. This required buildings to switch to slightly more expensive but much less polluting fuel oils. These laws have been phenomenally effective: the amount of sulfur dioxide in New York’s air has reduced -97% since these laws were passed.10 This is a great example of the city passing laws that improve New Yorkers’ lives.
Despite this great success at reducing sulfur dioxide emissions, heating residential and commercial buildings is still responsible for large portions of the city’s fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. New York could completely eliminate these emissions by switching to electric heating. Heat pumps are an exceptionally efficient way to heat (or cool) a room, and New York State is encouraging more homeowners to make the switch through education programs and subsidies.
Apartment dwellers, however, often struggle to make the switch to electric heating because of the logistical hassles. I know that I would personally be keen to switch to more efficient heating methods, but heating and cooling is managed centrally by my co-op building, so the decision is largely out of my hands. This is a topic where legislation could be especially helpful to coordinate the actions of large groups of people to switch to even cleaner heating methods.
Reducing Commercial Cooking Emissions
Restaurants and other commercial cooking facilities are the single largest source of New York’s fine particulate pollution. 37.5% of the city’s soot comes from commercial cooking.
The vast majority of restaurants use natural gas as their primary heat source, and burning gas produces a lot of airborne pollutants. In addition, tiny bits of food, oils, and fats also get suspended in the air in the high-heat cooking process that are common in restaurants. Some of this pollution is captured by air filters in the kitchen, but much of it escapes and is blown by ventilation fans out into the city.
New York’s governments have passed laws to restrict the installation of gas stoves in new residential buildings, but so far these laws have all exempted restaurants. Some chefs have voluntarily switched to electric ovens and induction stoves, but most restaurateurs are opposed. I don’t think there’s any easy answer here: switching a kitchen from gas to electric cooking is expensive. At the same time, 750 New Yorkers die prematurely each year because of the fine particulate matter emitted by commercial cooking, so just doing nothing doesn’t seem very appealing either. This is a topic I want to investigate more.
Air pollution: the silent killer
Overall, I think the health risks of poor air quality are seriously underrated. COVID greatly increased public awareness of the dangers and transmission mechanisms of airborne pathogens, but the negative consequences of breathing polluted air are still poorly understood by the general public.
Poor air quality has huge costs to New Yorkers’ health. It’s within our power to fix it, but the shared nature of the air we breathe means that government action is required to coordinate reductions in polluting activities. Next time you’re thinking about a policy – be it on housing, transport, or any other issue – I encourage you to take a moment to evaluate the impact on air quality.
New York has been making a lot of progress, but there’s still a long way to go before we can all breathe easily.
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New York City recorded worst-ever air quality Wednesday, New York Post
The Public Health Impacts of PM2.5 from Traffic Air Pollution, NYC Environment & Health Data Portal