In 2013, eight times as many New Yorkers died from air pollution-related health issues as from murder.
A recent analysis by the City estimated that 2,700 “premature” deaths every year can be tied to ozone and fine particulate matter, two leading air pollutants, as opposed to 333 murders in New York in 2013. The public health impacts of air pollution, while not necessarily dramatic, are powerful: air quality rivals other leading causes of death in New York City, such as HIV.
And while the city is making progress improving air quality, some elected officials say that too many New Yorkers are suffering from the debilitating and deadly effects of air pollution. A briefing document prepared for a February City Council oversight hearing on air quality asserts that the City’s “progress, while significant, does not mean that the air is healthy to breathe in New York City.”
Populations especially vulnerable to air pollution include children and the elderly; the poor; people with pre-existing health conditions; and residents of neighborhoods where pollution sources – like highways, waste transfer stations, and powerplants – are located.
“It’s hard to get attention for this,” said Dr. Thomas Matte, Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Surveillance and Policy at the city’s Department of Health. “Air pollution” is not a cause of death that would appear on any death certificate, he added.
“[But] what we know from the science is that when ozone levels are higher, there are more deaths,” Matte stated.
Both ozone and particulate matter pollution can aggravate asthma and other lung conditions, and cause premature death in people with heart and lung disease, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Two reports released in May of this year point to a dual reality: New York City has made major progress in reducing levels of particulate matter pollution, yet that pollution is linked to annual totals of approximately 2,300 premature deaths, 4,800 emergency room visits for asthma, and 1,500 hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Particulate matter pollution – in the form of small particles and droplets – is emitted by many local sources, including heating fuel, power plants, and motor vehicles. These particles and droplets are “so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems,” says the EPA.