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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Rhode Island’s loss of life and treasure to car emissions

Study demonstrates premature deaths and healthcare costs of vehicle emissions in RI

By Steve Ahlquist for UpRiseRI

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment and the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health quantified the total in-state and interstate deaths from transportation-related air pollution generated by five vehicle types in 12 states (and DC).

The study finds that ozone and fine particulate matter from vehicle emissions in 2016 led to an estimated 119 premature deaths and inflated health care costs by over $1.2 billion in Rhode Island. 

The study, published in Environmental Research Lettersfinds that pollution from tailpipe emissions is also traveling across state lines and harming the health of people living in cities and states downwind. In Rhode Island, 79% of these devastating impacts are from out-of state vehicles.

Regionwide, light-duty trucks, which include SUVs, were responsible for the largest number of premature deaths. Rhode Island’s high number of deaths and health impacts from out-of-state vehicles highlights the need for regionwide action to combat vehicle emissions, say the authors of the study, and for the electrification of our transportation infrastructure. The healthcare costs of our current transportation infrastructure should be factored into calculations as to the cost of electrifying this sector.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Charlestown had its first unhealthy air alert of 2021 on June 6 due to ozone pollution from vehicle exhausts. In recent years, Charlestown has had an average of a half dozen such alerts during warm weather.  - Will Collette

Highlights from the study:

All states experienced substantial health impacts from vehicle emissions and can gain health benefits from local action;

New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were hardest hit with health damages at $21 billion, $13 billion, and $12 billion, respectively, in 2016 (the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA));

Regionwide, light-duty trucks, which include SUVs, were responsible for the largest number of premature deaths at 2,463 followed by light-duty passenger vehicles (1,881) and heavy-duty trucks (1,465);

Many states are heavily impacted by out-of-state emissions and some states cause more deaths out-of-state than in-state, including PA and NJ, highlighting the importance of regionwide action to reduce vehicle emissions; 

On a ton for ton basis, buses in the New York-Newark-Jersey City metropolitan area had the largest health damages at $4 million for every ton of particulate matter emitted.

“The research confirms that recent efforts to electrify the bus fleet in New York City will have large health benefits—or, the biggest bang for the buck. The cross-border impacts underscore the need for regionwide action to curb transportation emissions,” said Saravanan Arunachalam, research professor and deputy director of the UNC Institute for the Environment in a press release. 

“What makes this study different from previous studies is that it connects the dots between where the pollution happens, and where the premature deaths occur.”

Researchers focused on ozone and fine particulate matter formed from on-road vehicle emissions using 2016 data from the most recent national emissions inventory. The health impacts from nitrogen dioxide pollution are also substantial but were not included in this study. 

Importantly, the researchers also found that ammonia emissions play a stronger relative role in causing health damages compared to oxides of nitrogen. Regionally, ammonia emissions from vehicles were responsible for 740 premature deaths in 2016, more than 10% of the total deaths. 

Ammonia emissions from vehicles are an unintended by-product of catalytic converters and are unregulated in the United States, and their role in urban air pollution has been generally underappreciated.