By Fran Gallagher
Every year, hundreds of New Jerseyans die prematurely from air pollution released from diesel vehicles, like trucks and buses, cars, and rail. Our car-dependent culture has us traversing the highways and our neighborhood streets, adding to ground-level emissions that not only release air pollutants, but also contribute to climate change. That has an impact on the health of every New Jerseyan.
With nearly 50% of our greenhouse gas emissions coming from transportation, the most effective way to protect public health is to migrate to renewable energy-based electrification of all our public and private transportation systems. It could save the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents, especially our most vulnerable citizens – children and historically marginalized populations. As pediatricians, we witness how patients suffer from exposure to air pollution.
Asthma alone is cause of about 100 deaths each year, with prevalence at historically high levels, and has become one of the most common longer-term diseases of children. While the numbers may not seem high, there is particular impact in urban areas, with a large disparity still existing between racial/ethnic groups.
In 2019, the American Lung Association ranked the metro area including Newark 10th and that of Camden 21st among the 25 most polluted cities in America for ozone. Both cities have major ports that serve as transit hubs for the goods that move in and out of our region, visible as we drive down the NJ Turnpike and across the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
As a result of their proximity to the ports and major thoroughfares, historically marginalized low-income people of color are exposed to greater amounts of air pollution than people in the rest of their community.
Every summer, thousands of children under the age of 5 are treated in the emergency room for asthma attacks, affecting seven times as many Hispanic and black children under the age of 5 as white children of the same age.
In New Jersey, people living in urban areas also rely more on public transportation, such as NJ Transit’s rail and diesel buses, which adds to the disproportionate burden of pollution in those communities.
Recent research indicates New Jersey is getting hotter at an alarming rate, with the last 20 years experiencing the 15 hottest summers since 1895. This matters because rates of asthma attacks and other respiratory conditions in urban communities are likely to increase with climate change as we experience more days of extreme heat.
Warm, humid summer air holds more particulate matter and ozone closer to the ground, which increases the risk of respiratory illnesses and can cause or worsen asthma and bronchitis. Particulate matter can become deeply embedded in the lungs, increasing risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, and premature death.
In the past, New Jersey has taken a lead to address vehicle emissions by requiring retrofits for diesel trucks and offering rebates for low emissions passenger vehicles. The next frontier is incentivizing New Jerseyans to driving zero-emissions electric vehicles for personal and commercial uses to reduce this significant source of pollution, which has disprorportionate impact in urban communities.
Pending legislation (S2252/A4819) will help crate conditions for drivers to embrace these options. Further, by investing in electrifying NJ Transit and the ports, our leaders can also build a more equitable New Jersey to include a healthier, affordable, and accessible public transit system.
We urge enactment of the Electric Vehicle (EV) bill. It is more than a good idea – it is a matter of life and health.
Fran Gallagher is chief executive officer of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Reprinted here as seen in the Asbury Park Press on May 19, 2019