Skip to content

Posts from the "Air Quality" Category

9 Comments

MIT Study: Vehicle Emissions Cause 58,000 Premature Deaths Yearly in U.S.

Just when you thought it was safe to breathe, a pair of studies underscore the grave threat that air pollution poses to public health.

Air pollution from cars claims more than 58,000 lives in the U.S. every year, according to new research from MIT. Image: The Telegraph

According to new research from MIT, in 2005 air pollution accounted for a staggering 200,000 premature deaths in the United States, more than 58,000 of which can be attributed to vehicle emissions. Air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years, the study estimates.

The research team used air quality modeling and epidemiological evidence to estimate the mortality effects of six polluting sectors across the United States. Vehicle emissions caused more deaths than any other category of polluter. The next greatest killer was power generation emissions — 54,000 deaths — and industrial emissions — 43,000.

Though city dwellers typically have a smaller emissions footprint per capita, the concentration of people and activities make major East Coast cities the worst for deadly vehicle pollution. In Baltimore, air pollution-related deaths were the highest in the country, at 130 per 100,000 residents. New York and Washington, DC, also have alarmingly high levels of fine particle pollution. Meanwhile, people who live in heavily industrial areas are vulnerable as well. Donaldsonville, Louisiana, with its nine oil refineries, has the highest rate of mortality related to fine particle pollution in the U.S.

“The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors,” wrote lead author Fabio Caiazzo and his team, “in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation.”

As troubling as these findings are, they’re not too far out of line with other research on the topic. In 2010, the EPA estimated that there were 160,000 premature deaths due to fine particle pollution alone. An additional 4,300 deaths were attributed to ozone pollution.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recently added air pollution to its list of carcinogens. The WHO’s determination comes from experts at its International Agency for Research on Cancer, who, after reviewing thousands of studies, concluded air pollution could be linked to both lung and bladder cancer [PDF].

“The air most people breathe has become polluted with a complicated mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Kurt Straif of the IARC told the Associated Press. He added that the WHO now considers air pollution “the most important environmental carcinogen,” ahead of second-hand smoke.

15 Comments

Heart Disease, Traffic Jams and ADHD Share One Simple Solution: Drive Less

This is an excerpt from “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy,” by Elly Blue (Microcosm Publishing, December 1, 2013, bikenomics.com). See our interview with Elly from spring 2013. 

Car exhaust is no laughing matter. Nearly half of residents in major urban areas in North America live close enough to highways and other large roads to experience serious problems as a result. Exposure to car emissions worsens and may cause asthma and other lung conditions, including lung cancer. There is evidence to suggest that it leads to hardening of the arteries and thence to heart disease. One study has found an increased risk of heart attacks while in traffic, either while driving or using public transportation. Breathing car exhaust may increase the risk of developing diabetes; it is certain, however, that people who have diabetes suffer disproportionately from the effects of air pollution.

Traffic flows and air quality improved with the odd-even license plate restriction in Beijing during the Olympics. Photo: Traffic Technology Today

The worst effects of breathing polluted air are experienced where it is densest: in traffic. Spending time on and near highways, freeways, and other busy roads is terrible for your health. How near is a question that is still being studied, but researchers believe that the effects are worst within either a fifth or a third of a mile. People in cars or buses are exposed to considerably more air pollution, perhaps because of, rather than despite, being in a closed space. People walking and bicycling on or next to roads breathe more air, but inhale somewhat less pollution; and cyclists have been found to have even less risk if they are on paths that are separated from the road.

The burdens that come with air pollution are, as with so much else, not evenly distributed. Poverty and ethnicity are both major factors that determine the amount of car exhaust we breathe. Housing near a source of pollution, such as a freeway, busy road, or industrial site is generally where people with low incomes are able to live.

Children are particularly at risk, beginning before birth. Air pollution affects prenatal development, and a recent study suggests that exposure to air pollution such as diesel particulates, mercury, and lead may put a child at risk for autism. A separate study found double the rate of autism among children who live within 1,000 feet of a freeway in several major cities. Air pollution has also been linked, tentatively, to hyperactivity in kids and childhood cancers. And kids who have high daily exposure to car exhaust score lower on intelligence tests and have more depression, anxiety, and attention problems. This isn’t just a matter of where children live – one in three public schools in the U.S. are within a quarter mile of a highway, well within the danger zone.

Traffic jams and air pollution are often talked about at once, as though one inevitably causes the other, and that by fixing one you can also solve the other.

It doesn’t quite work that way.

Read more…

12 Comments

Researchers Find Link Between Autism and Traffic Pollution

One more reason to reduce driving: Exposure to high levels of traffic pollutants may increase the risk that children will develop autism, according to a study published recently in the Archives of General Psychology.

A new study found that living near areas with high levels of traffic pollution during pregnancy and the first year of life is linked to an elevated risk of autism. Photo: Google Maps

Researchers from the University of California Keck School of Medicine examined traffic-related air pollution levels in two groups of children: 279 with autism and 245 without. The study found that autistic children and their mothers were twice as likely to live in high-pollution areas during pregnancy and the first year of life, controlling for other factors.

One in 88 children in the U.S. is affected by autism.

Researchers have been looking at a potential link between air pollution and the enigmatic developmental disorder for three years. Fine particle pollution and nitrogen dioxide — two of the leading pollutants emitted by internal combustion vehicles — affect the behavior of certain genes in the early stages of development. One of these genes is known to be less active in children with autism, according to a report on the study published on WebMD.

There is a growing consensus that autism is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. In reviewing the study, Andrew Adesman, MD, at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, said that traffic-related air pollution is likely one of many contributing factors, WebMD reports.

13 Comments

There’s a Lot Riding on U.S. DOT’s Definition of “Congestion”

Congress has done its job, such as it is, and passed a transportation bill. Now it’s handed off the policymaking to U.S. DOT, which must issue a raft of rules, definitions, and guidance to accompany the new law, known as MAP-21.

The wrong way to measure travel performance: "Travel Time Index" awards a better score to Charlotte than Chicago, even though commutes in Chicago are shorter, because drivers in Charlotte spend a higher percentage of their time in free-flowing traffic. Graphic: CEOs for Cities

According to sources with intimate knowledge of this process, much depends on how DOT decides to measure congestion. New performance measures for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ) — and quite possibly for the entire national highway system (depending how they define “roadway performance”) — require a working definition of congestion.

If the agency follows the prevailing orthodoxy, states could be rewarded for wasteful highway spending. If it adopts better measurements, smarter investments and less wasteful spending will follow.

The CMAQ measures will also require a definition of “cost-effectiveness,” a related but somewhat separate can of worms.

U.S. DOT Should Include Distance Driven in Any Measure of Congestion

Performance measures in the MAP-21 law have been criticized for being toothless, since many of them don’t have consequences attached. However, there is still the possibility that state performance rankings could be made public. And a spotlight on state failures could be an effective way to encourage good decisions.

Streetsblog asked Joe Cortright for his advice to DOT officials struggling to define congestion. Cortright is an economist and senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities. In 2010 the organization commissioned him to write Driven Apart, a critique of prevailing methods of measuring congestion. His words of wisdom for U.S. DOT: “Don’t make the mistake the Texas Transportation Institute makes.”

TTI’s Urban Mobility Report, released every year, invariably gives top honors to places that have overbuilt road capacity. The institute measures congestion only by looking at the degree to which traffic slows down people’s commutes. The problem with that, Cortright says, is that “you end up rewarding places that encourage people to drive longer and longer distances, and then you look at those long distances that they’re traveling, and say because they’re moving at a relatively higher speed much of the time that they’re driving, that the system is somehow performing better.”

Over the past few years, U.S. DOT has been very deliberately working hand-in-glove with HUD and the EPA to treat transportation and land use as one cohesive system. It only makes sense that the agency use the same ethic in measuring roadway performance and congestion. By doing so, DOT would have to acknowledge that a long commute along miles and miles of free-flowing highways is no bargain compared to a short commute in dense traffic, not to mention an even shorter commute on transit.

Clark Williams-Derry, research director for the sustainability-focused Sightline Institute, suggests that congestion may simply be the wrong thing to measure.Focusing on congestion is like, in a basketball game, focusing only on the number of assists you get,” Williams-Derry said. “It’s an interesting fact, but it doesn’t tell you the final score.”

Read more…

6 Comments

International Funders Shift Investments Toward Sustainable Transportation

Traffic congestion, air pollution, and lack of mobility disproportionately harm the poor in the developing world when transportation investments favor automobiles. Photo: Owni

If you think the United States is doing a bad job shifting toward sustainable transportation, take a look at the developing world. The places with the most to lose from auto-oriented development are doubling down on it — to the enormous detriment of their citizens, especially the poorest.

The number of cars in the world is expect to grow as much as 375 percent by 2050. Road fatalities in low- and middle-income countries are expected to rise by 80 percent just over the next eight years, with pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable users making up about half those deaths. Harmful air pollutants that already cause 1.3 million premature deaths each year, mostly in developing and middle-income countries, will rise. And carbon dioxide emissions from transport could grow 300 percent over 2005 levels by 2050 — with most of the growth, again, coming from the developing world.

The energy consumed by the transportation sector globally more than doubled between 1970 and 2005. Source: Worldwatch Institute.

Michael Replogle and Colin Hughes warn of these dire outcomes in their article on sustainable transportation for the 2012 State of the World report, published by the Worldwatch Institute. While international climate change agreements have historically overlooked the transportation sector, the authors note some promising changes afoot as international development banks seek to add transit projects to their portfolios.

Replogle and Hughes frame transportation policy in terms of both sustainability and equity. The urban poor lose out disproportionately when car-oriented infrastructure dominates, they note, since the lack of affordable transportation forces them “to choose between low incomes in informal sector employment close to affordable housing and higher-wage jobs that force them to spend a large share of their income and hours each day commuting.”

Compounding the inequity, fossil fuel subsidies disproportionately allocate public funds to the wealthy, the authors report: “The International Energy Agency estimates that only eight percent of the $409 billion that the world spent in 2010 to subsidize fossil fuel consumption (about half of which is used for transport) went to the poorest 20 percent of the population.”

Unfortunately, say Replogle and Hughes, international agreements on poverty reduction and climate change have largely ignored transportation. Even the Agenda 21 agreement, a bogeyman among far-right cranks, included “no targets, goals, commitments, or other forms of accountability” for sustainable transport.

Read more…

11 Comments

A New Bill Passes, But America’s Transpo Policy Stays Stuck in 20th Century

The House of Representatives approved the transportation bill conference report this afternoon by a vote of 373 to 52. [UPDATE 4:00 PM: The Senate has also approved the bill, 74-19.] This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Remember the empty highways that symbolized the House Republicans' vision of America's transportation system? The final transpo bill might as well have the same unfortunate cover.

After more than 1,000 days of waiting since the last transportation bill expired, the nation’s new transportation policy is a grave disappointment to people seeking to reform the current highway-centric system.

The fact that the House GOP tried and, for the most part, failed to reverse the progress made under presidents Reagan and Bush the elder offers a small degree of consolation. “Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward,” wrote Deron Lovaas of NRDC this morning. “But… that pretty much exhausts the good news.”

So what does the bill actually do? Overall, it doesn’t change a whole lot, and the most significant changes tend not to benefit livable streets or sustainable transportation. Here’s a breakdown.

Length and funding. The bill lasts a year longer than the Senate bill would have, expiring at the end of September 2014. That gives states, cities, and the construction industry substantially more stability and allows them to move forward on projects that have been delayed for years because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. It maintains funding levels at around $54 billion a year, as did the Senate bill, which is roughly current levels plus inflation.

While some have criticized the complex funding mechanisms that prop it up and its departure from a user-pays model, the Congressional Budget Office reported this morning that the bill actually reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion.

Everyone seems to understand that Congress won’t be able to pull this kind of magic for long and will soon have to deal with the long-term insufficiency of current Highway Trust Fund revenues to cover the nation’s transportation needs. However, the gas tax was not raised, and at the same time the House passed this bill, it also approved an appropriations bill that prohibits even studying the possibility of moving toward a VMT fee.

Non-transportation-related items. The Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, introduced into the transportation negotiations by the House Republicans, were stripped out of the bill. The RESTORE Act to spend BP oil spill fines on Gulf Coast restoration is included.

Read more…

No Comments

Report: Pollution From U.S. Parking Spaces Costs Up to $20 Billion Per Year

Parking spaces keep getting more costly.

Caution: Parking lots can be harmful to your lungs. Photo: UCTC.net

As we often discuss on Streetsblog, parking encourages people to drive rather than ride transit, bike, or walk. And all that asphalt also taxes sewer systems by making vast swaths of urban and suburban land impermeable.

But an overlooked cost is that building and maintaining each parking space belches out poisonous emissions at a prodigious rate — in some ways rivaling emissions from driving. That’s the big news from a study by the University of California Transportation Center.

UCTC researchers analyzed the environmental impact of U.S. parking infrastructure as a whole. Their research compiled the total noxious emissions produced in the process of building and maintaining parking lots — from materials mining to asphalt production, transport and, finally, construction and repair.

Their “life-cycle” analysis showed that each parking space in the United States comes at an annual cost of $6-$23 in health and environmental damages to society caused by air pollution alone. Nationwide, that adds up to between $4 billion and $20 billion annually.

The wide range is due to the difficulty of estimating the total amount of parking in the United States. Researchers examined multiple scenarios — the low-end estimate being 722 million parking spaces, the high-end more than 2 billion — based on available data.

For certain pollutants — such as sulfur dioxide and coarse particle pollution — the emissions caused by parking spaces were actually greater or equal to the amounts produced by driving.

Yet another reason why reforming policies like mandatory parking minimums will result in better public health and wellbeing.

“We hope that our life-cycle assessment will help planners and public officials understand the full cost of parking,” the research team told UCTC’s ACCESS magazine (edited by UCLA professor Donald Shoup). “Underpriced parking not only increases automobile dependence but is also environmentally damaging to construct and maintain.”

12 Comments

Polluters Rejoice! Obama Caves on Proposed Ozone Standard

This morning, President Obama announced that he would direct the EPA to back off of new ozone standards that would have saved an estimated 12,000 lives [PDF]. They’ll revisit it in 2013.

Get used to it.

Obama said the action was taken in the interest of “reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” but environmental groups slammed the decision as “a huge win for corporate polluters,” in the words of League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski.

NRDC President Frances Beinecke said, “The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog — based on science and the law. The White House now has polluted that process with politics.” Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was “disappointed” with the decision.

The decision has a major impact on efforts to reform transportation, NRDC’s Deron Lovaas told Streetsblog.

“It frankly makes our job harder, in terms of reducing pollution from mobile sources,” Lovaas said. “If they had set the standard closer to 60 parts per billion, as opposed to 80, regions and states would have to get really serious about transit, and really serious about smart growth, and really serious about reducing vehicle miles traveled, because the gains couldn’t all be made through better technology.”

Business interests had long lobbied against the tighter standards, and they expressed their pleasure at the president’s announcement. The Chamber of Commerce cheered the move, rationalizing that by waiting for the statutorily-required rule-making in 2013, the EPA “can base its decision on the most recent science, not 2006 science.”

According to the National Review, some Republicans had called the ozone requirements “the single most harmful regulation proposed by the administration” and estimated that the total cost of implementation would have been “at least $1 trillion over a decade and millions of jobs.” House Speaker John Boehner called Obama’s concession to polluters “a good first step” and said he was glad the White House “recognized the job-killing impact of this particular regulation.”

Did we mention it would have saved 12,000 lives?

11 Comments

This Is Your Brain on Cars—Oh, and Your Lungs and Heart and Gut, Too

Gerontologists in a laboratory at the University of Southern California exposed a group of mice to the same atmospheric conditions that humans encounter when driving along the freeway. Horrifyingly, they discovered that the mice’s brains showed the kind of swelling and inflammation associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers didn’t super-dose to get these results: the mice were exposed to freeway air for the equivalent of 15 hours a week — less than the 18.5 hour average Americans spend in their cars. Jokes aside about getting those darn mice off the road, the study suggests that driving less can reduce our risk of brain damage.

Let’s make not strapping a child into a car seat a symbolic act of love. Photo: Lafayette County Health

For decades, Americans have been hearing about the dangers of air pollution, much of which derives from our fleet of vehicles. Yet as the body of research has grown, clarifying just how damaging automobiles are to human health and the environment, we’ve persisted in spending an astounding amount of time in cars. As a nation, we drove three trillion miles last year. We have developed responses designed to treat symptoms of the underlying ailment, like keeping children indoors when the local ozone level triggers “code red” or “code purple” alerts. But as a whole, we have not responded to the everyday contamination of our bodies by driving less.

Most of us feel powerless to affect air quality. Many feel trapped by the built environment and unable to cut down on driving. Plenty also see no point in changing their behavior when “everyone else” is going to drive as much as they wish to. It’s unsurprising then that news about pollution is brushed aside—as is news about other ills caused by driving, including crash fatalities and injuries, stress, and obesity.

The UCLA mouse study joined other recent reports that highlight the variety of ways in which remaining overly reliant on the private automobile is self-destructive. But these reports should also make clear that changes in individual behavior can alleviate some of the problems. Here’s just a sampling:

  • Sitting for long stretches greatly increases the risk of heart disease – even if you exercise afterwards – according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. It may come as no surprise that sitting isn’t good for your health, but what’s shocking is that the raft of articles following the study tended to ignore active transportation while advocating improbable solutions such as standing treadmill desks. What’s more practical than replacing some of our long hours planted in the driver’s seat with walking, biking, or getting by foot to public transit stops?
  • While there was some good news in the American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air Report, as one commentator put it, it was “like getting a 53 on your math test after you got a 49 on your last one.” Half of Americans live in areas in which air quality is unhealthy. The ALA points out that the elderly, the young, and the sick are most vulnerable to the effects of pollution. And of course some of the sick—such as those suffering from asthma and heart disease—can trace the very causes of their conditions to air pollution.
  • Read more…

No Comments

Detroit Residents Press EPA for Stronger Air Pollution Monitoring

In Washington, "grassroots lobbying" is more often associated with industry-funded issue campaigns than ground-up local advocacy. But residents of Detroit's industrial southwest neighborhoods took the term back to its roots on Friday, getting a personal visit from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials after a groundswell of complaints about decaying air quality.

sm_DSC01515.JPGCyclists in southwest Detroit. (Photo: Detroit Synergy)
From the Detroit Free Press' report:
Environmental Protection Agency officials watched intently Friday as a computer that measures air pollution on the spot showed spikes around industrial plants in southwest Detroit. ...

Next to the plants in the 48217 ZIP code and nearby areas are whole neighborhoods boxed in by oil recycling plants, asphalt makers, a steel plant, a stinky composting yard, a salt factory and an expanding oil refinery.

"This is what we live with," said [Jayne] Mounce, who lives near Marathon's oil refinery and petroleum terminals.

This week, Mounce said she had taken her own air samples with the help of national environmental monitoring group Global Community Monitor and found lead-laden dust, which could come from a steel mill nearby. A few months ago, similar sampling found a dangerous chemical in the air -- methyl ethyl ketone, a gas that can cause numbness, tremors and gait problems.

The story notes that EPA officials have "fewer than 50 air monitors" in the entire state of Michigan, where the industrial base has shrunk in recent years but remains a prime economic mover -- and generator of air pollution. Nonetheless, the Detroit residents' plea for stronger air quality standards is an unusual sight compared with the more common practice of localities seeking more lax rules or more time to comply with EPA pollution limits.

Methyl ethyl ketone, the gas found in local air sampling, is commonly found in manufacturing plant emissions as well as specific products such as industrial glue and the exhaust of cars and trucks, according to the Centers for Disease Control's toxic substances registry. In 2005 it was removed from the list of hazardous air pollutants regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act after a federal appeals court ruling that endorsed the move.