Op-Ed: Improving health outcomes through climate-change action

Assessment of state’s clean trucks program reveals a plethora of positive health impacts, particularly for communities of color and low-income neighborhoods
David Henry (left) and Dr. George T. DiFerdinando Jr.

Over the past decade, research has pointed to the substantial contribution that economic, environmental and societal forces contribute to our health — as much as or more, studies show, than genetics, individual behavior and access to health care. Examples of these social determinants of health include quality of housing and schools, access to healthy foods, living-wage jobs and environmental exposure to pollution and other hazards.

To better understand the impact that a recent rule proposal by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection may have on New Jerseyans’ health, the New Jersey Climate Change Alliance prepared a “rapid Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the state’s proposed Advanced Clean Trucks Program and Fleet Reporting Requirements rule-making. If finalized, the proposal would adopt, by reference, California’s Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) Program, which requires manufacturers of vehicles over 8,500 pounds to increase the percentage of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) or near zero-emission (NZEV) (only those using battery technology) sold in New Jersey.

HIA is a method by which researchers examine the scientific and public health literature to assess the potential health outcomes of a decision. The Climate Change Alliance’s HIA focused on health impacts of reduced air pollution from vehicle emissions, as well as the health impacts of noise from vehicles. Its analysis includes an emphasis on the concept of health equity, which posits that equitable access to conditions and resources are essential for all people to live the healthiest life possible. The HIA pays strong attention to impacts on populations and communities that may already suffer disproportionate health, social, environmental and economic inequities.

Marginalized populations

In general, the research collected and summarized in the Climate Change Alliance’s HIA points to considerable positive health outcomes from the proposed rule, with a strong emphasis on positive impacts for marginalized populations that suffer the most from health disparities. Additionally, the HIA points out that the emissions and human exposure impacts of EV adoption, especially in comparison with conventional gasoline- or diesel-powered engines, depend on numerous factors including geography, electricity generation mix, type of EV and charging patterns. EVs replace tailpipe emissions but increase electricity demand. Therefore, maximum health benefits are not realized until the power generation fuel mix generates fewer emissions (preferably low-to-zero) than gas and diesel engines.

The HIA pointed to several other insights:

Extensive research shows the association between air pollution from vehicle emissions and public health, with harm to health being greatest from diesel emissions, given their composition of nitrous oxides (NOx), ultrafine particulate matter (PM2.5), and numerous organic compounds found to be cancer-causing. Causal relationships between exposure to these emissions are connected to a number of adverse health outcomes, including respiratory disease and lung function impairment, asthma incidence, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. The reduction of diesel emissions from heavier trucks resulting from the proposed rule is expected to have more significant impacts on public health improvement than from other vehicle emissions.

Roadways and other areas where trucks are in use for loading or delivery can create hot spots of locally elevated air pollution levels, which can harm some people more than others. At low-speed and heavy-idling conditions, which can be of particular concern around industrial areas like warehouses and ports, in-use truck emissions are as much as seven times higher than federal standards, in part because engine temperatures are too low to keep the emissions controls operating efficiently.

Research shows that, nationwide, communities with the highest exposure to truck pollution are disproportionately communities of color. The benefits of electrification will vary by neighborhood, with areas having more idling trucks likely seeing much greater reductions in air pollution from electrifying heavy-duty vehicles. Research finds that low-income housing is disproportionately sited adjacent to busy roads, more likely to be near point-source industry and often has greater indoor air risks such as mold. Preexisting exposure to traffic-related air pollution makes these areas more vulnerable to respiratory effects from additional pollution. The cumulative burden for such vulnerable communities is higher than the entire region and modest improvements in air quality would have a significant impact.

‘Noise annoyance’

Knowing that many medium- and heavy-duty trucks travel along the state’s major arteries, the research team found that almost a third of New Jersey’s population lives in census tracts that lie partially or wholly within a half-mile buffer area of these highways. Those affected are more highly representative of many of the states’ more vulnerable subgroups: slightly younger, with a higher nonwhite population, greater incidence of poverty than the state as a whole and per capita income about 13% lower than the state’s.

Exposure to noise is associated with many harmful psychological, physiological and mental health effects. Noise “annoyance” can be caused by road traffic and the random and intermittent sound-level variations caused by trucks accelerating, backing up or braking, for example. Physiological impacts of noise include hearing loss, tinnitus, hypertension, ischemic heart disease and some forms of cardiovascular disease. Mental health impacts of noise include anxiety and disrupted sleep. Noise adversely affects short- and long-term memory and sleep patterns, taking a toll on productivity in the workplace and school. Low-level but chronic noise of moderate traffic can stress children and raise their blood pressure and heart rates. The HIA found that the difference in noise between a ZEV truck and a diesel engine truck are greatest the more slowly the trucks are moving, indicating that electric engines may achieve greatest noise reductions in communities transected by or near local truck routes or congested highways, or shipping areas — where trucks move and often are idling and stopping, starting and braking.

Overall, research points to better health as a result of electrification of vehicles, especially diesel trucks and in communities with high cumulative environmental burdens and disproportionate exposure to truck emissions. The HIA outcomes echo previous work of the Climate Change Alliance that point to potential health benefits of science-informed climate action.

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