In a few months, Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins will travel across our movie screens to defeat the dragon Smaug. But, as Smaugs go, Tolkien's dragon isn't nearly as deadly as the smog we are exposed to everyday just by living in New York City. Every year, over three thousand New Yorkers die from complications related to breathing dirty air, and many more are hospitalized for heart and respiratory complications.
The biggest culprit is a common air pollutant known as fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 are small particles released into the air from trucks, cars, buses, commercial cooking, and most prominently, from the fossil fuel combustion used to heat residential and commercial buildings. When these small particles are inhaled, they exacerbate lung and heart conditions and increase the risk from chronic diseases.
This is not a new problem, and over the last few decades New York City has made great improvements. A recent study showed that approximately fifteen percent of the overall increase in life expectancy during the 1980s and 90s was due to reductions in PM2.5. But there is still more to be done. Another recent study, this one by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, showed that a ten percent decrease in the amount of PM2.5 would result in three hundred and fifty fewer premature deaths and almost nine hundred fewer hospitals visits every year.
So what can we do to slay this dragon? While there are many causes of air pollution, one of the biggest is the boilers used to heat many of the buildings in New York City. These boilers use natural gas or petroleum-based heating oils as fuel to generate heat and control water temperature. While of course we need to heat our buildings, we can lower the amount of pollution this heating causes by using a cleaner heating oil.
Right now there are three kinds of oil used to heat the boilers. Number 2 oil is the cleanest and most efficient heating oil, but also the most expensive. Number 6 oil comes from the residue of the refining process for more expensive and cleaner oils. Number 6 is therefore the dirtiest oil still in use--so dirty that it will be illegal to use by 2015. Finally, there is number 4 oil, which is a mixture of number 2 and 6 (and so also full of pollutants). Current law is phasing out number 4 oil as well, but slowly--it will be legal to use until 2030.
Why not simply require everyone to use number 2 oil right now? Well, it can be very expensive to switch to a heating unit that uses number 2 instead of 6. However, as we've seen, switching to number 2 oil would have significant generalized health benefits for all New Yorkers, and consequently could pay for itself by lowering medical costs for the entire city.
In situations like this, where the costs are borne by a few and the benefits accrue to all, it makes sense to help those few bear the costs. Fortunately, this is exactly what some of our elected leaders in Albany have been trying to do. Last year, Upper East Side Assemblymember Dan Quart proposed legislation to provide a tax credit to the owners of multi-unit buildings switch to a boiler using number 2 oil. By encouraging owners to switch sooner rather than later to a cleaner heating oil, this legislation would both save lives and, by lowering medical costs, end up costing the state very little.
Unfortunately, Mr. Quart's bill did not leave the taxation committee and so was never voted on by the full Assembly. However, there is significant support for this measure in city government. For example, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose office released a study earlier this year about the dangers of dirty healing oil, also supports Mr. Quart's legislation.
While his legislation did not pass last year, Mr. Quart not yet given up hope. He has partnered with State Senator George Maziarz and they are planning to re-introduce the bill this year into both legislative chambers. Let's hope the bill is more successful this year -- it does little good for New Yorkers to only conquer their fictional dragons.