Union of Concerned Scientists: Inequitable Exposure to Air Pollution from Vehicles in the Northeast & Mid-Atlantic

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Originally published on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Asian American, African American, and Latino residents in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region are exposed to substantially more air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses than other demographic groups. For many years, this has been a known fact among affected communities, who have experienced firsthand the dangerous health impacts of air pollution, such as lung and heart ailments, asthma, diabetes, developmental problems in children, and premature death.

We quantified and compared the exposure of various racial groups to particulate matter (PM2.5) from on-road sources. Beyond the scope of this analysis, emissions from ports, agricultural practices, dust, and other sources are well known to contribute to poor air quality and negative health outcomes for affected areas.

Key findings

  • On average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents.
  • The average concentrations of exposures for Latino residents are 75 percent higher, and for Asian American residents they are 73 percent higher, than they are for white residents. Exposures for African American residents are 61 percent higher than for white residents.
  • White residents comprise 85 percent of people living in areas with the lowest PM2.5 pollution from on-road vehicles. In these areas, pollution is less than half the statewide average.
  • About 6.5 million African American residents, 6.1 million Latino residents, and 3.7 million residents of other races (Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American, multiracial, and residents who self-identify with other racial groups) live in areas with PM2.5 pollution higher than the average of the state where they live.
  • Residents in the most polluted census tracts breathe air that is significantly worse than the regional average. In New York State’s most polluted areas, PM2.5 concentrations are 3.7 times higher than the regional average. The highest concentrations in Pennsylvania are three times higher than the regional average.

What is PM2.5 pollution? Fine particles—less than one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair—pose a serious threat to human health, as some of these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. Some PM2.5 is formed during the burning of gasoline and diesel in an engine, while additional PM2.5 is created in the atmosphere from the reaction of exhaust gases and other air pollutants. Diesel exhaust is a major contributor to PM pollution.

Opportunities to reduce harmful impacts of vehicle use

Electrification of vehicles

Electrifying both passenger and freight vehicles could greatly reduce emissions. Battery-electric vehicles in particular have no tailpipe emissions (there are minor amounts of PM2.5 emissions from tire and brake wear) and completely avoid emissions associated with refueling. Electricity generation can produce emissions, but these are lower than those produced by an average gasoline car and vary according to the charging location; furthermore, thanks to years of decarbonizing efforts, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have greatly reduced emissions from electricity generation. Expansion of electric vehicle rebate programs should provide financing assistance and larger rebates to low- and moderate-income residents. Investments in electric buses should prioritize serving communities exposed to the highest levels of gasoline and diesel emissions.

Targeted actions and investments

Regional, state, and local governments must target actions to reduce emissions in overburdened communities. As states in the region continue to design a regional policy to reduce vehicle tailpipe transportation emissions, they should seek input from communities that are disproportionately affected and ensure that equity is a key consideration in both the design process and future investment decisions.

Particulate matter air pollution from on-road transportation such as diesel and gasoline vehicles places significant health burdens on residents of the region, and those burdens are inequitably distributed. However, there are opportunities to greatly reduce the exposure to PM2.5 by reducing tailpipe and refueling emissions, making these burdens avoidable.

More efficient and lower-emissions conventional vehicles

Improving the efficiency of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles are also important for reducing air pollution, as less fuel is burnt. Also, gasoline vehicles with higher fuel economy need less refueling, potentially reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds evaporating during refueling and from spillage. Furthermore, fuel-saving technologies, such as start-stop systems that reduce idling, can also contribute to reduced tailpipe emissions. Using cleaner fuels in conventional vehicles is another way to reduce PM2.5.

Decrease the amount of driving

Incentivizing driving less is also a potential strategy to reduce harmful air pollution and improve public health. Land use decisions are important to reducing the need for driving, and policies that encourage use of public transit, walking, or biking in the place of private passenger auto use could reduce PM2.5 generation. This is especially true if the transit options are low-emissions, such as electric rail and buses.

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