Here's How NYC Says It's Saving 800 Lives A Year By Cleaning Up The Air

It’s been a cold winter in New York City, which means a lot of building owners are turning up the heat -- and pumping more pollutants into the city’s air.

But the amount of black smoke billowing above the five boroughs is dramatically less than it was just four years ago.

Since 2011, according to city figures, soot pollution in the city's air has plummeted by 50 percent, which amounts to 375 tons of airborne soot that isn’t lodging itself inside the lungs of New Yorkers, or helping to hasten the effects of climate change.

It’s an improvement, according to the city's health department, that is preventing 800 deaths a year, as well as 2,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations due to lung and cardiovascular diseases.

And it’s thanks, in large part, to a program called New York City Clean Heat. Launched in 2011 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the program set its sights on two culprits behind much of the city’s air pollution: No. 6 oil and No. 4 oil.

heating oil
From left to right, vials of Ultra-Low Sulfur No. 2, No. 4, and No 6 heating oils. According to NYC Clean Heat, "each vial was one third full and was shaken before photographing."

New York City is one of the few places in the country that still burns the two heavy heating oils. And although in 2011 only about 10,000 buildings used the oils, they contributed more soot pollution than all the cars and trucks on the crowded city’s streets.

New York City Clean Heat was created in conjunction with a series of city regulations requiring building owners to phase out No. 6 oil by July and No. 4 oil by 2030. The program is run jointly by the city and the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental group.

According to EDF Project Coordinator Abbey Brown, more than 4,000 buildings using No. 6 or No. 4 oils have converted to cleaner fuel in the past three years.

No. 6 oil gives off more pollution than No. 4. It’s heavier, more viscous and looks like tar or asphalt. It’s harvested, literally, from the bottom of the barrel of the petroleum refining process and contains high levels of sulfur. When No. 6 is used for heat, it releases what’s called fine particulate matter, or PM2.5.

Fine particulate matter is small. For perspective, each particle of PM2.5 is less than 2.5 microns in diameter, while human hairs are typically 40 to 120 microns in diameter. But when it's transmitted into the air from chimney exhaust, fine particulate matter can aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma.

Use of No. 6 also emits heavy metal nickel into the air, which can increase the risk of heart disease. (In New York City, the concentration of nickel in the air is nine times higher than any other large, American city.)

air survey
The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene measured ground-level PM2.5 concentrations at 150 monitoring sites across the city during the winter, then overlaid those concentrations with the locations of buildings that burn No. 6 oil.

Making the conversion to cleaner fuels isn’t cheap for buildings owners. It can cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

That’s why hundreds of building owners using No. 6 opted to make the cheaper conversion to No. 4, which is only slightly less toxic. But many other building owners made the more expensive conversion to cleaner forms of heating like biodiesel, Ultra-Low Sulfur 2 oil, natural gas, or steam.

There are still thousands of building owners using No. 6 oil ahead of the July deadline to phase it out. Owners burning the oil after the deadline can face a $560 fine, which Brown says is “pretty small,” or the city can take them to court to force a conversion.

“That’s often not enough incentive on its own,” Brown said, “which is part of the reason our team is performing a lot of outreach to building owners right now, saying ‘Look, you are on a tight deadline.’”

Although New York City Clean Heat doesn’t provide building owners with funds, it does its best to convince building owners that converting to cleaner forms of heating is more cost-effective in the long run. It also provides heating experts and other resources to building owners when they decide to make the switch.

Brown says they’re using the cold weather to re-focus attention on the program.

“When building owners are all concerned about heat, especially when it’s cold, it definitely becomes a present issue on everyone’s mind,” she said. “They’re also feeding their bill for how much oil they’re buying and consuming. It’s an interesting opportunity to drive the issue home.”

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