Never mind what the outdoor thermometer reads these days, we have ozone advisory alert to watch out for- especially in the summer and early fall when sunlight reacts with car and truck emissions to create unsafe levels of smog.

New York is home to one million asthmatics and many of the nation’s highest asthma rates – and diesel soot is one of the key outdoor triggers. In fact, roughly one-third of the smog-forming nitrogen oxides in the northeastern U.S. come from diesel engines. Just as leaded gasoline was a barrier to cleaner cars in the 1970’s (because it poisoned catalytic converters), today’s high-sulfur diesel fuel is a barrier to cleaner trucks and buses (because it disables diesel pollution-reducing equipment).

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that will cut smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by 95 percent and particulate soot, that triggers asthma attacks, by 90 percent. In order to reach these goals, EPA is proposing to remove 97 percent of the sulfur in diesel fuel.

Unfortunately, the oil industry is fighting this proposal because they don’t want to spend money cleaning up their dirty fuel. Ironically, the top 10 U.S. oil companies reported over $11 billion in profits in the first quarter of this year alone, more than three times the estimated one-time cost of compliance.

Let’s talk about the facts. More people die from complications arising from particulate pollution than car accidents. Here in New York, smog sends over 12,300 people to the emergency room each year, and causes more than 510,000 asthma attacks. Making matters worse, a study by local air pollution control officials estimates that diesel exhaust is responsible for 125,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. NYC exceeds the federal emissions standards for particulate pollution, mainly because of the diesel trucks and buses. Our pulmonary disease rates are much higher than the national average, evidence of the serious effects of breathing diesel soot. Not only does this cause asthma, but it also causes bronchitis, emphysema and several forms of cancer.

Unfortunately for us, the EPA has proposed waiting until 2010 to clean up smog-forming pollution from trucks and buses even though they concluded there is a strong link between tiny soot particles and thousands of premature deaths each year. The analysis, still being revised, is crucial to the Bush administration’s decision about how tough the final rules should be regarding cutting soot levels. The standard proposed for soot and air would limit concentrations of particles smaller than 2.5 microns to an average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. Levels of these particles have been slowly declining on average across the country for years, but we still see dozens of days each year when levels of small soot particles far exceed the proposed federal standards. These microscopic motes – composed of metals, carbon and other ingredients – are able to infiltrate the tiniest compartments in the lungs and pass readily into the bloodstream and have been most strongly tied to illness and early death, particularly in people susceptible to respiratory problems.

For many years, school officials around the nation have overwhelmingly chosen diesel fuel to meet their transportation needs because the fuel is widely available and easy to handle. Unfortunately, it creates not only unsafe environment for us but more so for our kids riding the bus. The truth is that tailpipe exhaust often dirties the air inside the buses – up to eight times higher than outside the bus (and four times higher than a car). Out of every million children that ride a school bus an hour each day during the school year, 23 to 46 of them may eventually develop a form of cancer from the excess diesel exhaust they inhale. Not all school buses run on diesel and even though older ones may have worse emissions than newer ones, age is not the only factor. Maintenance also makes a big difference. In New York, diesel buses and trucks fresh off the assembly line must meet certain emissions standards, but they face no requirements thereafter. There needs to be periodic inspections and roadside emissions tests for heavy-duty vehicles. It is important for school districts to replace diesel buses with alternative-fuel buses and at least retrofit the dirty buses with particulate traps until they can be replaced. For your child’s safety, whenever weather allows, all bus windows should remain open for ventilation and children should sit near the front of the bus (as exhaust pools near the rear).

In Washington, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has created a catalyst that reduces nitrogen from diesel engine emission in half, with even greater reductions possible. Beginning July 2002 in California, all buses must use low-sulfur diesel fuel and be fitted with particulate-catching filters as well as other control devices. Technology research continues with battery or fuel-cell powered buses on the horizon. Could New York follow suit?

The Juniper Park Civic Association is attempting to have further air pollution studies done in our area of Queens. Our neighborhood is located alongside the Long Island Expressway–one of the busiest expressways in the world. We must be concerned! Particularly now with the tremendous increase of trucks in rumbling through our neighborhood.