Cost of congestion includes air quality

If New York City agrees to congestion pricing, New Jersey drivers will pay. But state already pays a price
Credit: (joiseyshowaa via Creative Commons; CC BY-SA 2.0)
Smog on New Jersey Turnpike

As New York City moves ahead with the idea of charging drivers more depending on the volume of traffic, much of the opposition in New Jersey has been focused on the cost to commuters.

But another cost of high traffic is air quality. Despite improvements in air quality, many New Jersey residents are still breathing toxic air. The American Lung Association “State of Air” annual report gave most counties a letter grade under “A” for ground-level ozone, also known as smog. In other words, many counties experienced a number of days that violated national air-quality standards.

Smog and particle pollution are the two most pervasive and dangerous air pollutants nationwide, according to the association.

But what exactly are these pollutants and why are they so dangerous?

Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, is formed when oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight — for example, when certain pollutants from car and truck exhaust combine in the air on warm, sunny days. The largest source of air pollution in New Jersey is the transportation sector. Climate change is making the problem worse because more warm and hot days mean more chance for smog to form.

Particle pollution is a mix of small solid and liquid particles in the air. The sources could be anything from wildfires to coal power plants to diesel and gasoline exhaust. When there are high levels of particle pollution the air becomes opaque.

How harmful are smog, particle pollution?

Breathing in this pollution can damage lung tissue and reduces the lung’s ability to work properly. It also makes the lungs vulnerable to respiratory diseases and can worsen disease for those already suffering. Urban areas, which have more sources of pollution, consistently have higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

How can I reduce my exposure?

Some days, especially in the summer, the air quality can be unhealthy and people are advised to refrain from outdoor activities. Those with respiratory complications are advised to be even more cautious. Other days, no health impacts are expected.

The state Department of Environmental Protection recommends taking small steps like not exercising at midday on poor air-quality days. Another suggestion: Move outdoor activities to days with better air quality or change the time of the activity to the early morning or late evening.

Daily air-quality forecasts are posted on the state’s Air Quality, Energy & Sustainability site. Some weather applications also show daily air-quality forecasts.

What has NJ done to minimize air pollution?

The federal Clean Air Act has greatly improved air quality around the country, according to the American Lung Association report. In New Jersey, almost all coal power plants have shut down; the only two that are left do not operate regularly. It’s been a big boost to air quality because coal is a big source of particle pollution.

Last year, the state passed S-232/A-2212, which require the DEP to evaluate the environmental and public health impact of certain facilities, like power plants and landfills, on overburdened communities when reviewing certain permit applications. The bill S-3970/A-5941 — which would require certain warehouses to implement air pollution reduction tactics — was referred to the state Senate Environment and Energy Committee in June of this year.

New Jersey has also sued the Environmental Protection Agency multiple times to push the agency to enforce Clean Air Act standards in other states. If the air is cleaner in surrounding states, it will be cleaner when it blows into New Jersey.

 Text by Michael Sol Warren; graphics by Genesis Obando

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