EDF Health

Better data is critical to address health disparities in air pollution’s impacts

This post originally appeared on the EDF Global Clean Air Blog.

Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist, and Maria Harris, Environmental Epidemiologist 

The last several months have seen a wave of momentum in policies seeking toward advance environmental justice and equity through better data collection and mapping. In his first week in office, President Biden signed an executive order to initiate the development of a screening and mapping tool to identify disadvantaged communities with the goal of informing equitable decision making. And legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate would launch a similar effort. This focus on data and mapping is critical.  

At EDF, we’ve worked with community and research partners to map air pollution at the block-by-block level, and found that hyperlocal data can reveal pollution hotspots and variability within cities and neighborhoods that would otherwise be missed. Building on this research, our latest work shows how the health impacts from air pollution can vary at a hyperlocal level and how using local level data can greatly improve our ability to identify health disparities and target action. Our findings illustrate why it is important to incorporate health information into such decision-making, as both pollution exposure and health vulnerability influence the health impacts of air pollution.

These insights have relevance not only for actions at the federal level, but also for cities and states across the country that are seeking to reduce air pollution and address health inequities.

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How we make pollution more visible

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice President for Health.

This post originally appeared on the Global Clean Air blog

Our new animated video shows how invisible pollution makes its way into our body.

When we’re outside, either walking or driving, we’re instinctively looking out for traffic. “Look both ways when you cross the street,” is advice drummed into most children.

But even so, we all have blind spots, and we’re not aware of the present danger polluting cars and trucks bring into our daily lives.

Our new video shows that although air pollution from vehicle exhaust is invisible, its damage to our health is visible and deadly.

EDF’s Global Clean Air Initiative has spent years researching air pollution in cities around the world. Our pioneering work with Google Earth Outreach, academic, community and government partners in Oakland, Houston and London shows that levels of air pollution vary much more widely than was previously known. In Oakland, we now know that levels of air pollution can vary by up to eight times within one city block. We’ve been working to visualize local pollution and its impacts in order to support targeted policies for cleaner air especially in those communities hardest hit by pollution. But we also recognized the need to make the experience of pollution more visible and more personal to each one of us as we walk down a city street.

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Pandemic exposes need for cities to improve air pollution data collection to protect public health

Harold Rickenbacker, Ph.D., Manager, EDF+Business.

This is the fourth in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

Los Angeles, California. 

We’ve long known that air pollution is linked to health problems like heart disease and asthma, and that these risks are highest for the elderly and people with existing heart and lung diseases. Now, new evidence shows the same people who have lived with polluted air for decades are also at increased risk for severe illness from Coronavirus.

These findings are generating unprecedented urgency to clean the air we breathe and underscoring the importance for cities across the globe to make air pollution monitoring a priority in a post-pandemic world.

But as local leaders grapple with how to tackle air pollution and protect vulnerable communities, they’re faced with a big challenge: they lack the localized data needed to properly protect public health and reduce harmful emissions.

New, lower-cost sensor technology is allowing scientists, advocates and government officials to map air pollution at the hyperlocal level, which can reveal pollution patterns within neighborhoods and even individual city blocks.

Policymakers tasked with rebuilding healthier and more resilient communities in a post-pandemic world can use localized data to work more effectively with residents and stakeholders to implement powerful interventions that reduce air pollution in overburdened communities.

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Companies Need To Invest In Clean Delivery Amid Pandemic Online Shopping to Reduce Air Pollution

Aileen Nowlan, Senior Manager, EDF+Business.

This is the third in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

COVID-19 means a lot more online shopping, which means a lot more delivery trucks that could contribute to a lot more air pollution in our neighborhoods.

As coronavirus shut down the economy, some regions saw a drop in air pollution. But as economic activity picks up, so does pollution – and if the habit of doing more shopping online persists, we could end up with worse air quality from fleets of diesel-powered delivery trucks.

At-home delivery is contributing to growing demand for freight movement, which is driving increased consumption of fossil fuels, especially diesel, and worsening air pollution. In fact, Amazon’s carbon emissions climbed 15% in the last year alone—even before coronavirus—due to increased sales.

During this pandemic, at-home shoppers are deluged with purchases arriving by cardboard box, each delivered by polluting trucks. Our new video encourages consumers to let companies know they’d like them to make the last mile of delivery to come from a zero-emissions vehicle, cleaner shipping options and local delivery lockers. Getting a finished product from the factory to your door, has costs beyond the price tag. More trucks are making more trips, hurting the planet, and our health.

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Why now is the moment for cities around the world to act decisively on air pollution

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice President for Health.

This is the second in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

New COVID-19 air quality/ transportation measures in Bogotá, Colombia.

Around the world, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in air quality as a result of the response to COVID-19. While it’s come from an artificial and unwanted brake on the global economy, it’s drawn renewed attention to the devastating impacts of outdoor air pollution.

As many large cities around the world emerge from lockdown, city authorities need to act decisively to prevent air pollution rebounding and even exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels. That was the conclusion of participants in a “Clear Skies to Clean Air” webinar I moderated last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund, in collaboration with the World Bank.

The improvements in air quality seen during the COVID-19 lockdown have shown individuals and policymakers what is possible and could open the door to reinvigorated efforts to address pollution.

London and Bogotá demonstrate clean recovery strategies

The webinar heard from policymakers on the front lines of addressing air pollution: Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London, with responsibility for environment and energy; and Claudia López, Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.

New COVID-19 air quality/ transportation measures in London.

Cities need devolved powers if they are to address local air pollution, argued Rodrigues: “We can’t have a centralised approach … Citizens deal with their local authorities, mayors know what is needed in their cities. Devolving powers, alongside funding, is absolutely critical so we can push the electrification agenda and the reclamation of roads, so we can avoid a car-based recovery.”

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Amid COVID-19, the Trump administration sets dangerous air pollution standards. What is at stake for Houstonians?

Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist; Rachel Fullmer, Senior Attorney; Jeremy Proville, Director; Grace Tee Lewis, Health Scientist

The Trump administration’s disregard for science has been clear in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not the only health threat they’re making worse by ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence. For three years the administration has systematically sought to weaken clean air safeguards, endangering all Americans.

We know air pollution causes heart disease, diabetes and lung disease—and that the people suffering from these conditions are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Independent of the ongoing pandemic, air pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths across America year after year. This underscores the vital importance of pollution protections to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Unfortunately, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed to retain an outdated and inadequate standard for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution despite strong scientific evidence that it must be strengthened to adequately protect human health.

To understand what having this pollution standard means for families living in the Greater Houston area, Harvard University and EDF scientists undertook an analysis of the impacts of PM2.5 exposure across the city. We found that:

  • Exposure to fine particle air pollution in 2015 was responsible for 5,213 premature deaths and over $49 billion in associated economic damages.
  • More than 75% of the health burden was borne by communities exposed to PM2.5 levels below the current standard.
  • Meeting the current standard alone would have prevented 91 deaths of the more than 5,000 premature deaths due to fine particle pollution.

By ignoring the scientific evidence and retaining the current standard, Administrator Wheeler is ignoring the very real health impacts felt by Houstonians and communities across the country from exposure to fine particle pollution.

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