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A recent study from the University of Virginia added more data to the thesis that air pollution disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color. Researchers measured the near-daily emissions of nitrogen dioxide in 52 major U.S. cities and found that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color experience an average of 28 percent more nitrogen dioxide pollution than higher-income and majority-white neighborhoods. This data from the study also singles out diesel traffic as the most significant contributor to pollution disparities.
Nitrogen dioxide or NO2 is a gaseous air pollutant composed of nitrogen and oxygen that forms when fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gas or diesel are burned at high temperatures. The gas contributes to particle pollution and to the chemical reactions that make ozone. It is associated with elevated levels of premature death, as well as cardiovascular and lung disease.
The University of Virginia study also found that while diesel trucks account for only 10 percent of vehicles on the nation’s roads, they contribute about half of the overall NO2 pollution in cities. This is particularly devastating to communities of color because of their proximity to trucking routes on main U.S. thoroughfares. The roots of this practice goes back nearly a century because of practices like redlining that forced racial minorities into the least desirable neighborhoods where highways and polluting industries were located.
Heavy-duty vehicles are also responsible for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the on-road transportation sector. In North Carolina, cars and trucks are responsible for 65 percent of ozone-producing nitrous oxide emissions and 42 percent of climate-warming carbon emissions.Beyond the roadways, diesel trucks are also used at ports, quarries, concrete and asphalt operations, landfills, wood pellet factories, and other industrial operations. In addition, diesel exhaust emitted on construction sites is also a major pollution contributor.
June Blotnick, executive director of CleanAIRE NC says there is a downside to relying on diesel engines as the economy’s workhorses. “Unfortunately, those industries are sited where land values are low, often where low-income residents and communities of color live,” says Blotnick. “While this research focused on NO2 emissions, diesel exhaust also contains invisible particulate matter which includes over 40 known cancer-causing organic substances and is linked to heart disease, respiratory hospitalizations, and premature death, playing a key role in health disparities between whites and communities of color.”
It is possible to devise regulations that reduce air pollution disparities by targeting emissions from diesel vehicles. Local officials could accelerate efforts to electrify heavy-duty trucks or buses ahead of light duty vehicles.
Enacting regulations that curb heavy-duty fleets and other vehicles that run on diesel could have a significant impact on air quality and reduce the air pollution disparities. The study authors said that a 60 percent reduction in diesel-related pollution led to an automatic 40 percent drop in air pollution inequality because historically disadvantaged communities saw a greater benefit from the improvement of air quality.
In June 2020, North Carolina joined 15 states and DC to sign the Multi-State Medium- and Heavy-Duty Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committing to electrify 100 percent of medium and heavy-duty vehicles by 2050. This is a step in the right direction.
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