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Climate Health is Human Health | Environment | Hudson Valley
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Climate Health is Human Health | Environment | Hudson Valley

Cricket Valley Energy Center in 2019. - PHOTO BY BILL KISH

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Cricket Valley Energy Center in 2019. - PHOTO BY BILL KISH

  • Photo by Bill Kish
  • Cricket Valley Energy Center in 2019

Climate change may be a global problem but air pollution is a local problem. The atmosphere is heated by greenhouse gases produced when we burn things to get heat or energy. But fine particles that pose a greater threat to human health and are more easily found in the surrounding area can cause havoc. 

Large-scale fossil fuel combustion has long been a major threat to the health of communities. It was inevitable that someone would pay this toll for decades. Energy must come from somewhere. New York is now committed to major climate goals and trying to figure out how to stop burning energy for fuel, making it seem possible to take real climate action on a large scale. How much life and health do we lose to dirty air? What can we do to get it back.

As part of the state Climate Action Councils, a team of New York State analysts conducted a study to determine how much New York’s health would improve if the state economy decarbonizes in the next few decades. The bottom line is that New York’s decarbonization will result in at least $160 million worth of improved health. Once all the missed work days, hospitalizations, and premature deaths have been tallied up, most of that benefit will be due to better air quality. It’s a small number, but it’s a good way to measure human life. Carl Mas, lead analyst of the study, said it at an October meeting that every community in New York will see a significant improvement in air quality as a result of this work. 

No Safe Levels

Air quality scientists caused a political stir in 1994 when Harvard’s Six Cities study was published. They have been guiding the course of federal environmental regulation and health research ever since. The study, which compared air quality and life expectancy in six US cities over a decade, found a strong linear relationship between air pollution and premature deaths. It shocked even the scientists who were conducting the research. According to Douglas Dockery, an Harvard environmental scientist who studied the effects of air pollution, life expectancy was reduced by two years. Dockery explained this to Campus Magazine in 2012. It was much, far more than we had anticipated. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has increased standards for air pollution many times since then. They might even do so again.

Scientists found that fine particulate matter was the leading cause of premature death due to air pollution. These tiny particles, no larger than 2.5 micrometers in size, float in the air and can easily be inhaled deep into your lungs. Mike He, a postdoctoral associate in environmental health at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine says that 20 of these particles can be found in the same size as a grain of sandy beach sand. Because they are so small, they bypass your body’s natural defense mechanisms and enter your bloodstream directly.

Study after study has supported the conclusion Six Cities reached in 1994: Fine particulate matter and other pollutants have a cost to human life and lead to increased rates of heart disease, asthma, COPD, and other cardiovascular diseases. He states that there is no limit to the impact of air pollution on human health. Even at very low levels, there is still an impact. 

The problem of air pollution and human well-being is similar to climate change in that there is no safe level. Each new source of pollution only makes the problem worse. However, the same dynamic that makes the problem seem overwhelming to solve is also a compelling argument for action. Every single source of pollution we manage to clean-up will bring a real-world benefit.

According to his own research, recent efforts to reduce fossil fuel pollution are already paying off. The 2016 New York City law banning heating oil #6a dirty fuel than the other alternatives, #4 and 2, went into effect. In a peer reviewed study, he and his co-researchers compared air quality between New York City census tracts in 2011 and 2016. They found that #6 was a dirtier fuel than the alternatives, #4 and #2. 

The ban on #6 heating oil will result in New York City residents living longer and healthier lives. He claims that both the richest and the poorest neighborhoods see the biggest improvements, as they have the oldest buildings and the most inefficient heating systems. This is only a small part of a larger picture. American air quality has improved over the past decades due to the 1970 Clean Air Act, as well as other environmental regulations. Americans are living longer. Six Cities researchers conducted a 2009 study that found that between 1980-2000, there was a significant increase in lung function. Air quality improvements have added 1.6 years to the average US life expectancy. It’s a start. 

Clearer Pictures

Fossil fuels can cause pollution in the air, not only in the city, but also upstate. Wood burning creates more particulate than oil and gas, and produces the same amount heat. It is more difficult to keep track of air pollution in rural New York than in the city. His research on heating oil policy relied heavily upon data from the New York City Community Air Survey, a program that continuously monitors the air quality of the metropolis using approximately 100 monitors mounted on utility poles. Researchers in the Upstate have a more accurate view of local air pollution because there isn’t a lot of monitoring.

Climate and community advocates in some places are taking citizen science into their own hands. Bill Kish, a Millerton Software Engineer, helps to keep track of four air quality monitor stations in Dover, Dutchess County. Residents have offered to host backyard gadgets that will keep an eye on a nearby power station. Kish says they are very basic monitors. They contain a tiny microprocessor inside them. A sensor is used to detect these fine particles. This can be done by bouncing a laser beam at them. They can be found around the plant. The facility, the 1,100-megawatt Cricket Valley Energy Center, was launched in spring 2020. It is one the largest and most modern fossil fuel power plants in the state. It produces enough electricity from turbines that burn fracked gas to power one million homes. 

A project like Cricket Valley would be difficult to get state approval today, given New York’s climate law. The DEC has denied permits to developers who want to build and expand the Danskammer or Astoria gas-fueled power stations. They cited the state’s 2019 climate law as the reason. New agency guidance has been proposed by the DEC that will likely make it harder for existing fossil-fuel projects get regular permit renewals. Dover will remain with the plantand its health impacts, just like other communities that have large fossil fuel power stations.

Cricket Valley has been in development for more than a ten year. Many locals didn’t know it was coming until the chimneys began to rise alongside Route 22. There are 300-foot smokestacks. Jess Mullen, who is a member the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition, said that people didn’t really know what was going on until those smokestacks went up. The group initially tried to stop Cricket Valley from going online. They formed a partnership in order to monitor Cricket Valley’s impact on local air quality, health, and safety as the clock ticked towards the plant’s opening. 

The four Dover air quality monitors are part of this partnership. They also feed data into larger citizen science networks. PurpleAir has installed sensors at each station that measure fine particulate pollution and upload the data to PurpleAirs global map. PurpleAir sells these devices for around $250. Anyone can place one in their backyard to share and collect air quality data.

Dover is not only home to Cricket Valley, but many other sources of air pollution. Vehicle traffic, local heating systems, and other major sources of air pollution all produce the same pollutants as the plant’s natural gas burning. In fact, they may be contributing more to local air quality issues than the plant. However, by placing monitors around the facility and observing how sharply pollution spikes correlate with Cricket Valley operations, the project was able detect clear impacts from the plant’s activities on local air quality. There are very high levels of PM 2.5 in the homes, as well as the surrounding areas, depending on how the wind blows, what the atmospheric conditions and how much gas the plant burns at any given moment. [fine particulate matter]Kish says that volatile organic compounds are also important. 

Monitors in Dover are also noticing other indicators, such as fossil fuel combustion. Last summer, data showed large spikes in pollution when wildfire smoke (also a manifestation of climate change), was obscuring the Northeast skies. Kish said that the monitors went crazy when this happened. It was actually quite scary.

He notes that scientists have made great strides in studying the air quality in rural areas in recent years. They combine satellite imagery with monitor data like those from Dover with advanced modeling tools. He says that we can now incorporate populations that were not possible before. 

Urgent Work in an Changing World

New York State’s 2019 climate law has set a goal to eliminate all combustion-based heat or power within the next few decades. This will ensure that air quality in the state, especially in areas near large pollution sources such as power plants, will improve significantly. There will be improvements in human health and longevity. In a world that has been affected by the pandemic, improving air quality is more important than ever. Studies already show that poor air quality areas have higher rates of death. COVID-19 is more likely than not to cause death.

Scientists working at the intersection between politics and human health need to understand the impact of environmental policies on the real world. It can be difficult to separate the effects of new laws from the many other ways the world is changing. He agrees that it is worthwhile work. He says, “I have been realizing how important it is to include the policy component, because I want my work to do something for people around the globe.” If the research doesn’t impact any kind of policy, it is not doing its job to its fullest potential.

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