New York City air quality reaches cleanest levels in over 50 years

air quality new york city
The city’s air quality has reached the cleanest levels in more than 50 years, officials announced Thursday.
Credit: Getty Images

The city’s air quality has reached the cleanest levels in more than 50 years through efforts that will save the lives of some 800 New Yorkers annually, officials announced Thursday.

“New York has the cleanest air now of any major American city,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

In the last five years, the levels of sulfur dioxide—which can cause difficulty breathing, death and contribute to acid rain production—decreased by 69 percent,  according to a study conducted by the city. Soot pollution has dropped 23 percent since 2007.

Phasing out the most toxic heating oils as part of the Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC initiative is the largest contributor to the reductions, officials said.

Through the Clean Heat program, more than 2,700 of the most heavily-polluting buildings converted to cleaner fuels since 2011, though regulations only require they do so by 2030.

“All of the people in this city have gotten together and, whether they really thought about it or not, collectively they’ve made a real difference in the stuff we’re putting in the air,” Bloomberg said.

Expanding the regional gas supply and local distribution as well as state emission regulations have also contributed to cleaner air quality.

Officials said these efforts were the biggest step in saving lives in the city since banning smoking in bars and restaurants a decade ago. Since 2008, there’s been about 25 percent less pollution-related deaths, hospital and emergency room visits, Bloomberg said.

air quality new york city
Sulfur concentrations in New York City from winter 2008 to 2009, before efforts were made to convert certain buildings to cleaner-burning fuels.
Credit: Office of the Mayor
air quality new york city
Sulfur concentrations in New York City from winter 2012 to 2013. Officials announced Thursday that these concentrations have decreased significantly in just five years.
Credit: Office of the Mayor

Chemicals and particulates in the air can get in the lungs or bloodstream and cause or exacerbate a number of health problems, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said.

“No one has the ability to chose what air to breathe and what air not to breathe,” Farley said. “That means it’s government’s responsibility to keep the air as clean as possible.”

Some of the city’s lowest-income communities are most helped by the reductions, officials said. Northern Manhattan, northern Queens and the South Bronx saw the greatest improvement in air quality.

“There’s nothing more fundamental than the right to breathe,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, after praising the results.

Though Bloomberg insisted he would not comment on the election, he said the next mayor would have the tools to continue his administration’s efforts in improving air quality.

“I’m going to live here and I’m going to breathe that air, too,” he said.

Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter: @AnnaESanders


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