New Jersey has the dubious distinction of having the most Superfund sites in America and scores of other toxic sites that need attention. But public health professionals say the most clear and present threat to the public health maybe the air people breath everyday.
Dr. Bob Lumbach is an associate professor of environment and occupational health at Rutgers School of Public Health. He says when ranking public health risks from the environment, diesel exhaust ranks much higher than contaminated sites that have already been identified.
“This issue is exposure pathways because that’s really what is important,” says Lumbach. “It has to get from the source to a person’s body and it is clear what the exposure pathways is when we have trucks where the exhaust is being released in neighborhoods, What maybe less appreciated though is that air contaminates, air pollution from trucks,` can easily get inside buildings and homes.”
Reverse Engines: Reneging on a Green Pledge
Lumbach, environmental groups and community activists are concerned about a recent decision by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reverse itself on a pledge it made in 2010 to ban all diesel trucks that were older than 2007 when federal truck engine regs kicked in requiring a major reduction in highly toxic diesel emissions.
Back in 2010, then Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia, hailed the move to ban the pre-2007 diesel soot spewing trucks by 2017 as a way the bi-state agency “would build on our legacy as good environmental stewards.
In January, in explaining the Port Authority backslide, a spokesman blamed sticker shock, telling The Record that it would cost the bi-state agency $150 million to replace the 6,300 pre-2007 trucks in the fleet. The Port Authority only committed $1.2 million, which along with $9 million from the federal government, would be enough to deal with six percent of the polluting rigs
Of the 9,000 trucks that serve the Port Authority, only 2,700 meet that more stringent post-2007 emission standard. Now, instead of a 2017 total cut-off for the older polluting rigs, as originally promised, the bi-state agency, starting this Spring, won’t permit additional pre-2007 rigs to start operating. That has the result of grandfathering in the thousands of polluting trucks working the Port with the exception of models made in 1994 and 1995, which would be banned in 2018, two years from now.
According to the EPA, a $100 million dollar investment in voluntary retrofitting for the pre-2007 diesel truck fleet nationally would generate $2 billion in health benefits from reduced premature deaths, hospital visits and other costs associated with diesel emission exposure.
The Port Authority handles $200 billion dollars a year worth of cargo. Close to half of the Port Authority workforce makes more than $100,000 a year.
What We Can’t See
Dr. Lumbach notes that with diesel exhaust its both what you see and what’s actually invisible that’s so toxic.
“So it includes particles which we see when we see soot coming out of the tailpipe,” says Lumbach. “But a lot of those particles we can’t see. They are invisible they are so small. and those very small particles are the ones that we’re particularly concerned about because they can get deep in the lungs.”
“Now there also gasses like nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxides, formaldehyde, benzene, and a number of those are carcinogens that cause cancer,” adds Lumbach. “ They can cause the worsening of asthma. They can cause new onset asthma, meaning asthma in someone whom has not has asthma before as anew chronic disease. They also contribute top heart attacks and other cardio vascular diseases “
Research indicates that children in Newark, a city with a heavy concentration of diesel truck traffic and port activity in Essex County, are more likely to have to be hospitalized for asthma than their suburban peers.
“Well there is evidence that shows that when we look at Newark and compare it to surrounding communities, more suburban, more affluent communities in Essex County, that the rate of hospitalization for asthma among children is about twice that of the surrounding communities,” says Lumbach.
Dr. Lumbach believes there is strong scientific evidence that diesel emissions can have a pretty significant impact on the unborn, depending on just how much the mother is exposed to the emissions.
“So in a study from Columbia University there was an association between how much diesel exhaust particulate matter exposure the mother had during pregnancy and issues like IQ levels, hyperactivity and other behavioral issues, even growth,” for the children they gave birth to says Lumbach.
The Burden of Chronic Asthma
Kim Gaddy is and environmental justice organizer with Clean Water Action and Newark resident. She asked to meet at the intersection of Frelinghuysen and Meeker, near the Newark Weequahic Park. Gaddy says this intersection is along one of the busiest truck traffic corridors in the region thanks to the nearby Port Authority of New York and New Jersey freight operations.
All three of Gaddy’s children have asthma and she considers the bi-state agency a “bad neighbor.”
“I was quite floored that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did not respect the health of Newarkers and decided that because of money they are not going to follow through with the plan,” says Gaddy.
“So now my life, my children’s life, you put a price on their head saying they are not good enough for us to save their lives cause we can’t afford to remove these older trucks and I think that is an injustice to all the residents in this City of Newark.”
Gaddy says one in six of Newark’s children are dealing with asthma but its a serious issue in other urban communities as well.
“Tremendous. It is the number one for absenteeism throughout the state,” notes Gaddy. “You complain that our children are not being educated but some of them have to miss school because they are sick and their parents have to take off of work so now they are loosing money and they can’t pay their bills and so it is all tied in.”
The public health risk posed by these toxic diesel emissions is also an occupational hazard.
“Long shore man who make a very good living down here at the Port, their life is in jeopardy because of the amount of diesel pollution that they take in on a daily basis is causing serious problems with them,” Gaddy told WBGO.
Gaddy and environmentalists want the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to follow the example of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that since 2012 have banned the pre-2007 trucks with the worst emissions performance.
“It worked for them because the municipality, the Mayor, the Port Commission and private investors decided ‘hey this was important — too many lives are at stake we are right next to communities,” says Gaddy. “We have to take on this responsibility to save the lives of our residents.”
In an e:mail exchange a spokesman conceded the Port had backed off its earlier commitment. In a statement the bi-state agency’s defended it environmental performance noting it had replaced 429 trucks with newer models would ban the oldest and dirtiest trucks serving the port by 2018. Gaddy was not impressed.
”And as we stand here in the year we are celebrating 350 years of Newark we understand that our industrial past has been the reason for a lot of the Superfund sites, the brown fields and a lot of the pollution that is here because individuals did not know back then but in 2016 you know,” says Gaddy. “Now you can make a choice to do the right thing.”
Outside of a Rite Aide in Newark Steve Lewis and his son are offering to fix minor auto paint damage for customers as they park outside the chain drug store. he says asthma has already taken a heavy toll on his brother.
“He’s having a hard time breathing the air you know,” says Lewis. “He looses his breath. It is terrible. He’s a young man in his 40s and he seems like he is 80 years old. He lives here with me and i got to take care of him. He can’t breath. He can’t work.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of the 2007 breakthrough in diesel technology that reduced these deadly toxic emissions by over 90 percent, and what that could mean for the neighborhoods with a high volume of truck traffic.
Over the years, epidemiologists have estimated that exposure to diesel emissions was linked nationally to 125,000 cancer cases and 21,000 pre-mature deaths annually. That’s more people than are killed annually by drunk driving or murdered by guns.
This story is part of Dirty Little Secrets, a series investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC,WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News,WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State.