NYC’s Fight for Better Air Quality

Urban air quality is one of the most pressing issues facing cities around the world today

By Gabriel Foreman
Image: A picture of the South Bronx from an aerial drone

For today’s Eco Spotlight we are discussing urban air quality, one of the most pressing issues facing cities around the world today.

It is often noted that cities in countries with emerging economies like China and India have high levels of air pollution. However even in New York City, where Duro headquarters is located, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that poor air quality causes at least 2,000 premature deaths and 6,000 visits to the emergency room among its residents every year.

One of hardest-hit areas of the city, in which the residents suffer the worst consequences of poor air quality, is in the Bronx. Data collected from the NYC Community Air Survey in collaboration with DOHMH has corroborated what has long been suspected: that of all New Yorkers, residents of the Bronx have the highest adult mortality rates, respiratory hospitalization rates, cardiovascular hospitalization rates and rates of asthma in both children and adults, all as a result of air pollution. While it’s true that NYC’s air may not be as polluted as some others, these statistics are nonetheless alarming. Fortunately the city is not taking this problem lying down. In 2007 the Bloomberg administration launched PlaNYC, continued under the de Blasio administration as OneNYC, which focuses on addressing sustainability issues such as waste and water management, parks and air quality.

DID YOU KNOW…

  • Air pollution ranks among the top 10 global heath risks and contributes to more than 3 million premature deaths a year
  • Children breathe a proportionately greater volume of air than adults, making them more vulnerable to air pollution
  • While dirty air is a threat to everyone, some communities suffer more from air pollution than others

(Source: Natural Resources Defense Council)

In an attempt to improve air quality for all New Yorkers, OneNYC has had a number of initial successes over the first five years of the program (2008-2013), including:

  • A 69% reduction in SO2, known as sulfur dioxide, which is produced mainly from burning oils with high sulfur content such as No. 4 or No. 6 oil used in heating buildings and hot water. SO2 also contributes to PM2.5 in the atmosphere.
  • A 16% reduction in PM2.5, which is a fine airborne particle commonly referred to as soot. PM2.5 is considered the most harmful urban air pollutant and is produced from fuel combustion in vehicles, boilers in buildings, and commercial cooking, among other sources found commonly in cities
  • A 19% reduction in NO2, also known as nitrogen dioxide, which is a pollutant closely linked with asthma. NO2 is also a product of vehicles, buildings, marine vessels, and other sources.

While the reductions in soot and nitrogen dioxide were notable, if relatively modest, the nearly 70% reduction in sulfur dioxide in just five years is an extraordinary achievement. How was this accomplished?

Understanding the Problem

It sounds simple, but to solve a problem you must first understand it. The NYC Community Air Survey was the largest urban air-monitoring program in the United States at the time, collecting over 2,000 samples and monitoring hundreds of sites with a range of traffic conditions, size and number of buildings and land uses throughout the city.

A Direct Line to Policymakers

What led specifically to the massive drop off in SO2 were the regulatory efforts of City and State officials, which required buildings using excessively polluting heating oils to switch to cleaner fuels. Other measures from State and federal agencies that controlled emissions from power plants, industry, and other sources contributed to the reduction in NO2 and PM2.5 over the same period.

New York City Community Air Survey monitoring locations (Source: OneNYC)

What’s Next?

The NYCCAS is a great start to better understanding our local environment, but as the study concludes much more needs to be done: air pollution is still at levels that are harmful to public health and some neighborhoods still suffer disproportionately high exposures.

The tools we have available to address this are primarily through education, regulation, and technology. For instance, it is believed that unconverted oil boilers still account for a large portion of SO2 emissions, which is why the City is using its Clean Heat Program to provide outreach as well as financial and other assistance for buildings to achieve compliance with the law. Energy efficient technology will also play a large role in the reduction of greenhouse gasses that contribute to air pollution as well as global climate change.

How Duro is Getting Involved

In addition to manufacturing eco-drones specifically for this type of urban research, allowing for the efficient collection of a variety of types of actionable environmental data, Duro is also educating young people from the Bronx and elsewhere about these critical environmental issues to get them involved in the solution.

As the Community Air Survey has shown, better understanding our environment results in better planning and leads to tangible results. While New York City may not have the worst air pollution, we will work to lead the way in reducing needless deaths and diseases from this mitigable scourge, not just for some but for all the people who call New York home. 

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