Local, National and Global Action Against Motor Vehicle Pollution: Making healthy breathing a right

According to the World Health Organization, about 800,000 people die each year from the effects of air pollution. In the United States, 60,000 premature deaths can be attributed to air pollution and automobile exhaust is the largest single source, reports the American Heart Association. Despite recent progress in reducing air pollution, 160 million tons of air pollution were released into the air in the United States in 2002 and more than 152 million Americans now live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate matter, the two most prevalent of the principal air pollutants. Air pollution contributes to a variety of diseases including cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and stroke. In many developing world cities, the rapid increase in the number of automobiles and lax air pollution standards make automobile exhaust a growing threat to health. Automobile pollution also contributes to global warming, providing another rationale for action.

These grim statistics demonstrate the benefits of reducing air pollution. Since motor vehicle exhaust is a major contributor to air pollution, decreasing what comes out of the tailpipes of cars, busses and trucks has become a focus for public health action. Recently, advocates and policy makers have initiated efforts at the local, national and global levels to clean the air we breathe. An examination of these activities may help to identify the relative advantages and limitations of working at each level.

 Community Groups Document Perils of Air Pollution in Milan and New York, Demand Change.

“We want people to rebel and politicians to pay attention. This is really bad for health.”

Concerned about the impacts of air pollution on health, community organizations such as Parents Against Pollution in Milan, Italy and both West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) and the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative in New York City are fighting to clean up urban air. These groups link youth researchers, scientists, medical professionals and lawyers to take on both the motor vehicle industry and city planners, calling for cleaner air, improved public health and environmental justice.

In Milan, Italy, where the levels of air pollution are among the worst in Europe, “Parents Against Pollution” has armed young people with portable monitors to measure ultrafine pollution particles. Participating scientists helped to design the measurement strategies and interpret the results. Sixteen year old Tommaso Abbate wore the monitor for 24 hours. During that period, his average exposure to air pollution levels was 127 micrograms per cubic meter, 117 g higher than the standard of 10 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a safe target. Responding to these findings, Anna Gerometta , President of Parents Against Pollution stated, “We want people to rebel and politicians to pay attention. This is really bad for health.” Earlier this spring, Milan exceeded both the WHO and European Union (EU) standards for particulate air pollution on 80 days. Italy, home to Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lamborghini and others, was warned by the EU that its current emission reduction plan is inadequate and the city will face billions of euros in fines if it fails to remedy the situation.

Milan is taking notice. Milan now imposes “car-free Sundays” in which the use of cars and motor scooters is banned throughout the better part of the day and public transportation is increased to compensate. In order to further reduce air pollution and improve health, Parents Against Pollution would also like to see free public transportation for children, dedicated bike lanes and special lanes for buses, and a charge for cars entering the city center.

In New York City, the greatest source of air pollution comes from vehicle exhaust. In Harlem, WE ACT and the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative, two community organizations, have demonstrated the disproportionate effect that air pollution has on residents’ health. A sanitation truck depot and six of the seven NYC bus depots operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York (MTA) are located in Harlem. (The MTA operates public transportation in the New York metropolitan region.) At these depots, which house more than a third of the city’s fleet of buses, vehicles are parked, repaired, fueled and relaunched each day. The asthma rate for children in Harlem is 25%, one of the highest ever documented in the United States and considerably higher than the national childhood average of 7%. Harlem and the Bronx have the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in New York City and African Americans and Latinos are hospitalized at a rate of of 3 – 5.5 times that of whites. The neighborhood has consistently exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter, likely as a result of the high concentration of bus depots, nearby commuter highways, local traffic, as well as regional upwind emissions, incinerators and industrial facilities. Local traffic is particularly an issue given that Amsterdam and Broadway avenues – two of the major north-south thoroughfares in Manhattan – pass through the center of Harlem. These routes are the main truck routes for transporting goods in the area since trucks are prohibited from traveling on the highways that run east and west of Manhattan.

A partnership between the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harlem Hospital Center Department of Pediatrics led to the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative. The goal of the project is one of intervention and the Initiative seeks to improve the health of the estimated 13,000 residents of Central Harlem. Initial screening resulted in rates far higher than initially expected and study researchers ultimately found rates of asthma four times the national average and three times the national average for African Americans. Researchers involved in the study stated “Childhood asthma in Central Harlem is not only highly prevalent, but severe.”

WE ACT challenges the structural conditions that cause high rates of respiratory distress and other health conditions in Harlem and fights to keep pollution out of poor and people of color communities. Founded in 1988, WE ACT works to improve environmental policy, public health and quality of life in communities of color. The organization challenged the MTA regarding its use of diesel buses which are primarily housed in upper Manhattan and emit 30-100 times more particles than do gasoline engines with emission control devices. Working with Columbia University researchers to demonstrate the impact of air pollution on Harlem, WE ACT measured air pollution levels in the neighborhood over the course of five days at four intersections in Harlem. The group found rates of fine particle concentrations ranging from 22-69 micrograms per cubic meter, far higher than the standard proposed by the 1998 Environmental Protection Agency of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. As inMilan, WE ACT also worked with youth researchers to demonstrate that young people in Harlem are exposed to levels of diesel exhaust known to contribute to respiratory health problems.

Although WE ACT has not so far been successful in its legal actions against the MTA, the Authority has substantially reduced the age of its fleet of buses and cut emissions by 85%. Still, WE ACT has demanded that the city close one of the bus depots, upgrade the fleet to the use of hybrid vehicles at all uptown sites, and relocate some of the remaining depots to other locations in the city. These battles continue.

Researchers, Activists Demonstrate Importance of Clean Air for Lifelong Health, While Auto Industry Opposes Stricter Fuel Standards, Sways Lawmakers

Public health researchers and advocates have urged the federal government and the auto industry to reduce automobile air pollution both to prevent pollution-related illnesses and, more recently, to reduce global warming. In the last two decades, the incidence of asthma has increased and if current patterns continue, it is estimated that the rate of asthma will double in the United States by 2020, affecting 29 million individuals. Although the auto industry publicly shows support for improved emission standards, their efforts to stall stricter emissions bills in the United States and their financial and political support for lawmakers who sought to weaken the bill illustrates that clean air and better health are still not top priorities.

Within the United States, emissions from cars and trucks accounts for approximately one third of greenhouse gases. Thus, researchers, environmentalists and community health activists are increasingly joining forces to make the point that better fuel economy not only reduces the need for foreign oil but reduces emissions that are linked to both environmental and public health concerns. These groups point to the particular impact that pollution has on children. Combustion related air pollution is linked to cancer and serious respiratory and cardiovascular concerns for both children and adults and there is evidence to suggest that the fetus and infants are more vulnerable to environmental toxins which can affect pre and postnatal development. A Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health study found in preliminary analyses that 46% of infants between birth and three months of age experienced wheezing and other respiratory symptoms as did 54% of babies at six months and 50% at nine months. Children who live near busy streets are more likely than their peers who live in quieter areas to have health problems, including asthma and lung disease, stunted lung development and premature death. While asthma has many causes, nationally, children who live in low-income neighborhoods, areas more likely to be near highways and other high congestion zones, are four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than children living in wealthier neighborhoods. Health problems developed in childhood continue throughout adulthood and increase their risk of serious breathing problems.

Although new research evidence and health advocacy have called attention to the health and environmental benefits of less polluting and more fuel efficient motor vehicles, U.S. fuel efficiency standards have not been raised since 1983. However, in late June, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would require that new cars, SUVs and light trucks to achieve an average of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020 compared to the average of 25 mpg today. Although the Senate bill (known as the Stevens Amendment) passed, it was opposed by House and by Senate Democrats from Michigan, who at the behest of the auto industry looked to weaken the proposal.

Despite the fact that the auto industry has admitted that increased fuel economy standards are necessary, automakers complained that the increases proposed in the June Senate bill were too strict and not economically feasible. Dave McCurdy, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, issued a statement in which he commended the efforts of Senators who “worked to eliminate provisions of concern in the energy bill.” Arguing that the proposed increased standards would reduce auto safety, cost jobs and hurt the economy, Steven Douglas, Director of Environmental Affairs for a consortium of auto manufacturers, suggested officials move gradually toward a national increase in fuel economy and reduced emissions. Automakers were especially opposed to a provision of the bill that combined light trucks and the passenger fleet into one group, setting a common emissions standard which manufacturers claimed was economically untenable. Throughout the 1990s, the auto industry depended on high profit, high pollution SUVs and light trucks to make their money. Even though this strategy has contributed to the near collapse of the US auto industry, Detroit automakers find it difficult to kick the habit of depending on big polluting vehicles for their profits.

Consumer group Public Citizen expressed criticism about the Senate bill in a press release. In addition to not setting mandatory emission standards, the bill would allow auto makers to produce vehicles that achieve less than 35 mpg if they could justify the lower standard based on a cost-benefit analysis. Public Citizen noted that cost-benefit analyses have often been used and abused by the auto industry and thus it seems unlikely that automakers would find raising emission standards to be economically feasible, despite the fact that foreign manufacturers manufacturers have already met and exceeded such standards. The House is currently working on their version of the bill and some reports indicate that a final vote may be delayed until later in the year.. Regardless of which version is ultimately passed, it seems unlikely that strong, mandatory emission standards will be set. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook stated, “Even if it were mandatory, the 35 mpg target is not strong enough. The best-in-class fuel economy performers on the road today are already well on their way to achieving fuel economy in excess of this target. We can do much better much sooner.”

Making clean air a right: Next steps?

Through community-based organizing and alliances with researches, local groups such as WE ACT and Parents Against Pollution have mobilized their communities on the health impact of motor vehicle pollution. They have convinced city officials to take action to reduce pollution, such as car-free Sundays in Milan and the MTA’s commitment to upgrade their fleet of diesel buses. Both groups have also successfully crated new alliances among young people, researchers, and community organizations. To date, however, these local organizations have not yet been able to put direct pressure on the motor vehicle industry to design safer, less polluting vehicles.

On the other hand, national campaigns such as the one led by Public Citizen and JumpStart Ford, a joint project of Global Exchange, the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society, have elicited some response from the industry. Through internet campaigns, letter writing, media campaigns and direct action, these organizations have been able to draw the attention of manufacturers and have had some success in changing corporate practices, such as JumpStart Ford’s “Adopt a Dealer” campaign. However, without strong community-based links, national campaigns may be less able to motivate individuals to take sustained action or to put another pressure on Senators, Congressional representatives and a White House to overcome the powerful influence of the auto industry.

Growing local, national and global concerns about air pollution, health and global warming have sparked new action to reduce air pollution and create healthier and more sustainable forms of transportation. On the one hand, the creativity, passion and tactical flexibility of pollution control activists have created the potential for a movement that can challenge an industry that values its profits more highly than public health and governments that seem reluctant to make clean air a basic human right On the other hand, to date these activists have yet to forge a framework or policy agenda that can link these different levels and arenas of action. Only when clean air advocates achieve the same vertical and horizontal integration that the global automobile industry practices will they be able to achieve their health and environmental objectives.

Photo credits:
Photo 1: Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.
Photo 2: Marc Baptiste, copyright 1997 West Harlem Environmental Action
Photo 3: Environmental Protection Agency