Air emissions from the combustion engine cause many health problems. When it comes to the emissions of diesel powered engines, the impacts are serious and potentially deadly.
Diesel-powered vehicles and equipment account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources.
Particulate matter or soot is created during the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel. Its composition often includes hundreds of chemical elements, including sulfates, ammonium, nitrates, elemental carbon, condensed organic compounds, and even carcinogenic compounds and toxic metals, such as cadmium and zinc. Particulate matter is tiny, small enough to penetrate the cells of the lungs. These small particles make up 80-95% of diesel soot pollution.
Particulate matter irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and even premature death. Although everyone is susceptible to diesel soot pollution, children, the elderly, and individuals with preexisting respiratory conditions are the most vulnerable. Researchers estimate that, nationwide, tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of particulate pollution. Diesel engines contribute to the problem by releasing particulates directly into the air and by emitting nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides.
Diesel emissions of nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, which irritates the respiratory system, causing coughing, choking, and reduced lung capacity. Ground level ozone pollution presents a hazard for both healthy adults and individuals suffering from respiratory problems. Urban ozone pollution has been linked to increased hospital admissions for respiratory problems such as asthma.
Diesel exhaust has been classified as a potential human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Exposure to high levels of diesel exhaust has been shown to cause lung tumors in rats, and studies of humans routinely exposed to diesel fumes indicate a greater risk of lung cancer. For example, occupational health studies of railroad, dock, trucking, and bus garage workers exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust over many years consistently demonstrate a 20 to 50 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer or mortality.
For those reasons, in 2006 New York State officials took action. They enacted a new law, the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (“DERA”), designed to curb diesel emissions by mandating the use of low-sulfur fuel and applying stringent standards to heavy-duty vehicles used by the state and its contractors. The law required the state and the businesses it contracts with to replace or retrofit these vehicles to dramatically reduce diesel emissions.
But there has been a hitch: Despite the fact that DERA was supposed to be fully implemented by 2010, each year it has been delayed in the state’s secret budget negotiations, allowing vehicles with antiquated emission controls used by the state and its contractors to continue to pollute our air and threaten the health of our communities. A dozen years after DERA was signed into law, once again the 2019 budget delayed its full application.
Instead of continuing to kick the can, and putting the public health at risk, New York must take action to be a national environmental leader by finally fully implementing the Diesel Emissions Reductions Act. This is a must to improve air quality and reduce asthma rates—particularly important for communities subject to multiple pollution sources.
New York must finish the job, by fully implementing DERA to protect public health—particularly children in highly-impacted communities—and advance the state’s climate change agenda.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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