News Feed
Links & Resources

Share |

Diesel Emissions:
A Serious Threat to Public Health
and Our Environment

Extensive research has shown that emissions from heavy diesels such as trucks, buses, and construction equipment are harmful to our environment and public health. An aggressive effort to clean up our fleet of aging diesels could save lives, combat climate change, and create green jobs right here in New York.

Public Health Impacts: Fine particle pollution produced by diesel engines causes 21,000 deaths a year across the United States. Diesel engines are known for their durability, but older engines emit a toxic mixture of particles, metals, and gases, including over 40 “hazardous air pollutants” as classified by EPA.  On average, the U.S. cancer risk posed by diesel pollution is seven times greater than the cancer risk from all other 181 air toxins tracked by EPA combined.

New York State ranks among the worst states in the nation with respect to negative public health impacts from diesel pollution. It is estimated that in 2010, New Yorkers will suffer the following impacts from diesel pollution:

  • 1,159 premature deaths
  • 2,249 non-fatal heart attacks
  • 39,429 asthma attacks
  • 848 cases of chronic bronchitis
  • 179,385 work days lost

Children will suffer the following:

  • 812 asthma-related emergency room visits
  • 2,016 cases of acute bronchitis
  • 42,475 respiratory symptoms (upper and lower combined)

The estimated cost of health impacts in New York during 2010 will total $9.6 billion.

Environmental Impacts: In addition to emitting nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants, diesel engines contribute uniquely to what is possibly the most serious threat facing our environment today—climate change. Diesels in the United States account for 57% of U.S. black carbon emissions, which is especially troubling considering the fact that the U.S. has the highest per capita emissions of black carbon in the world. As a warming agent, black carbon in diesel pollution is about 2000 times more potent than the equivalent amount of CO2 over a 20-year period.

Action is Needed Now: Diesel engines are the workhorses of our economy. They help to build the infrastructure of our cities, transport people and goods, and are known for their durability. While laws such as the federal Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2005 are working to clean up new on- and off-road diesel engines, many dirty diesels will continue to spew harmful pollutants for years to come if nothing is done. The median life of a heavy diesel truck is nearly 30 years, so even with new laws requiring the diesel engines coming off of our assembly lines to be much cleaner than in the past, we will still have old, dirty diesels spewing out harmful emissions for decades to come.

Solution: An aggressive effort to retrofit our aging fleet of dirty diesel engines could save as many as 100,000 lives between now and 2030. Doing so would also provide immediate climate benefits through reductions in black carbon emissions and complement long-term efforts to combat climate change through the reduction of CO2 emissions. Diesel particulate filters (DPFs) are the only available technology that can virtually eliminate black carbon particles, boasting potential emissions reductions of over 90%. These filters, many of which are made right here in New York, can be installed on most diesels and greatly reduce the pollution of the 11 million-plus dirty diesel engines that would otherwise continue to pollute our air and threaten public health for decades to come.


New Infrastructure Investment Should Be a CLEAN Investment

In 2010, Congress will be reauthorizing the federal transportation bill, which will provide billions of dollars for investment in the nation’s roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. These projects are carried out using heavy diesel equipment, whose emissions pose a major threat to the public and our environment. Since reauthorization of the transportation bill only occurs only once every five years or more, Congress must act now on this opportunity to protect public health and our environment by including clean construction requirements in the bill, ensuring that the best technology available is used to reduce harmful diesel emissions from federally funded projects.

diesel/nondiesel trucks
Construction equipment with and without a diesel particulate filter retrofit — note the plume of black smoke coming from the non-retrofitted machine on the right. (Photograph courtesy of Clean Air Task Force)

The Problem:  As the workhorse of our economy, diesel engines, especially construction equipment, will play a major role in building the next generation of infrastructure. However, pollution from diesel construction equipment poses a serious threat to communities and project workers alike. Diesel pollution is associated with numerous adverse health effects including lung cancer, asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke, and premature death. Workers exposed to diesel exhaust face an increased risk of lung disease.

The majority of New York State residents live in counties that violate federal health standards for particulate pollution, and New York ranks in the 90th percentile nationally in terms of negative health impacts from diesel pollution. Each year in New York, diesel emissions are responsible for thousands of non-fatal heart attacks, nearly 40,000 asthma attacks and over 1,000 preventable premature deaths. Diesel exhaust is also responsible for the majority of our nation’s black carbon soot, a potent global warming agent.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over 37 percent of land-based particulate matter comes from construction equipment.  Nationwide, there are over 2 million diesel engines used in construction equipment and most lack modern particulate pollution controls. This same equipment is used to carry out our nation’s transportation and infrastructure projects.

Retrofitting heavy diesels with a diesel particulate filter (DPF) can help reduce harmful emissions by over 90%, while creating jobs and creating substantial savings on health care costs. (Photograph courtesy of Clean Air Task Force)

The Solution:  Federally funded transportation projects should minimize any adverse impact on air quality in our communities. In order to do so, we must ensure that the heavy diesel equipment used to carry out such projects is as clean as possible.  

Diesel particulate filters (DPFs) can eliminate roughly 90 percent of the dangerous particulate emissions from diesel engines. By including strict standards for clean construction in the Transportation Reauthorization Bill, we can create jobs and improve our nation’s infrastructure while protecting public health and our environment.

Diesel retrofits are a Good Investment:  Estimates show that for every dollar spent on reducing particulate matter pollution from diesel engines, $12 would be avoided in health damages. Keybridge Associates estimates that a $1 billion investment in clean diesel technology would yield 19,000 jobs.

For more information on NYPIRG’s campaign to combat pollution from dirty diesel engines, please contact: Joseph Stelling: (518) 436-0876 x268,