By the Numbers: Air Quality and Pollution in New York City

by |June 6, 2016

New York City is known for many things, but having clean air isn’t one of them. The smell of truck exhaust and the sight of smoke plumes rising up from rooftops are all too common experiences for Gothamites. Though it can be easy to take the air we breathe for granted, air pollution poses serious health risks for city dwellers, including heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. The city recently estimated that up to 2,700 premature deaths a year could be attributed to fine particulate matter and ozone in the air—more than eight times the number of murders that took place in 2013.

Improving the quality of New York City’s air will be no small feat, but in 2007 city government officially took on the task with the launch of PlaNYC, the city’s first sustainability initiative. PlaNYC set the ambitious goal of achieving the cleanest air quality of any major U.S. city by 2030. The following interactive maps and data explore some of the issues and challenges the city will face in clearing NYC’s air.

Annual Mean PM 2.5 Concentration by Neighborhood, 2014 *

One important measure of air quality is the amount of fine particulate matter that can be found in the air. PM 2.5 are small particles that are two and a half microns or less in width and are produced by vehicle exhaust, fuel combustion, power plants and other sources. These small particles can travel deep into the respiratory tract and contribute to health conditions ranging from coughing or lung irritation to chronic bronchitis and cardiovascular hospital admissions.

The New York City Community Air Survey (NYCCAS) measures PM 2.5 in approximately 60 sites throughout the city. The map above shows annual mean PM 2.5 concentration by New York City neighborhood. In 2012, the EPA lowered the acceptable level of annual PM 2.5 to an average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Several community districts across Manhattan and neighboring areas approach this limit, and two Midtown districts exceed it. The World Health Organization’s guideline is even lower at 10 μg/m3. Twelve NYC neighborhoods would not meet the WHO standard.

Mean Sulfur Dioxide SO2 Concentration, Winter 2013-14 *

When it comes to air pollution in NYC, it isn’t all bad news. In 2005, it was estimated that approximately 10,000 buildings in the city burned number 4 and 6 heating oils, which emit more air polluting PM 2.5, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nickel than alternative fuels. Like small particulates, airborne sulfur dioxide has been linked to a range of respiratory health symptoms and complications. City officials began working with state and local organizations to pass regulations that reduced the sulfur content in heating oils and in 2012 established the NYC Clean Heat program, which encourages building owners to convert to cleaner burning fuels. From 2008-2014 sulfur dioxide levels fell 67 percent across New York City. Importantly, the decreased levels were maintained despite fluctuations in average winter temperatures. In 2013, the city estimated that improved air quality contributed to 1,600 fewer asthma emergency department visits and 780 fewer deaths a year.

In recent years the New York metropolitan area has dropped to the 36th spot for annual particle pollution on the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” listing of cities.

Asthma Emergency Department Visit Rate and Percent Below Poverty Level, 2014 *

People who live in poor neighborhoods suffer disproportionately from health issues related to poor air quality. A 2011 report found that PM 2.5-attributable asthma emergency department visit rates were more than three times higher among children in high poverty neighborhoods.

High truck and traffic volume, industrial facilities and older heating systems can all contribute to increased levels of air pollution in impoverished neighborhoods. Other environmental factors such as poor building maintenance, mold or insect infestation can also trigger asthma symptoms.

Neighborhoods throughout the Bronx, northern Manhattan and north Brooklyn struggle with both air quality issues and high poverty rates. Unsurprisingly, these areas also have the highest rate of asthma emergency department visits per 10,000 residents.


NOTES *

PM 2.5 Map: NYCCAS predicted concentrations of parts per billion in micrograms per cubic meter of air. Source: New York City Community Air Survey: Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) Mean by Neighborhood, 2014. NYC Environment & Health Data Portal

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) Chart: NYCCAS predicted concentrations of parts per billion in micrograms per cubic meter of air. Source: New York City Community Air Survey: Sulfur Dioxide (PM2.5) Mean by Neighborhood, Winter 2013-14. NYC Environment & Health Data Portal

Asthma & Poverty Map: Asthma rate is combined normalized score for all age groups per 10,000 residents; youth and adult populations are age-adjusted figures.

Geographical boundaries for poverty data are approximate as census PUMA tracts do not conform precisely to NYC UHF 42 areas or community districts.

Sources:

  1. New York State Statewide Planning and Research Cooperative System (SPARCS) Deidentified Hospital Discharge Data: Asthma Emergency Department Visits, 2014. NYC Environment & Health Data Portal
  2. U.S. Census Bureau: Percentage of people whose income in the past 12 months is below the poverty level, 1-Year Estimate, 2014. American Community Survey; American Fact Finder.
  3. National Weather Service: Average Monthly & Annual Temperatures at Central Park.

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