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New York City Air Quality Programs Reduce Harmful Air Pollutants

Environmental quality has a direct impact on a person’s health status and plays a major role in quality of life, years of healthy life lived, and health disparities.1 Air pollution is one of the major environmental threats to an individual’s health. Exposure to pollutants in the air is linked to premature death, cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease.2 Air pollution is one of New York City’s most significant public health challenges.3 For example, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) estimates that between 2005 and 2007, ambient levels of fine particles (PM2.5) contributed to over 3,000 premature deaths and over 8,000 emergency department visits and hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular disease in NYC each year.4

In April 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the first comprehensive sustainability plan (PlaNYC) to prepare the city for a population growth of nearly 1 million residents, strengthen the economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers. The sustainability plan outlined strategies to reduce the city’s greenhouse emissions by 30% by 2030 relative to the 2005 levels, and proposed initiatives to address the city’s vulnerabilities to climate change.5 PlaNYC also contained 10 broad, overarching goals, including improving air quality.5 The NYC DOHMH and Queens College of the City University of New York launched the New York City Community Air Survey (NYCCAS) program in 2008 to better understand air quality issues in NYC. The program monitors air quality across NYC, identifies air pollution problems, and identifies where improvements may be needed. This program studies how street-level pollution from traffic, buildings, and other sources vary across NYC neighborhoods. These pollutants include fine particles, nitrogen oxides, elemental carbon, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and fine particulate matter constituents.6

In 2009, NYCCAS discovered that a major predictor of NYC airborne fine particulate matter and sulfur dioxide was the density of nearby buildings that burn fuel oil. During this time, there were 3 grades of heating oils that were commonly burned in NYC (No. 2, No. 4, and No. 6). No. 6 oil is the heaviest and resembles tar or asphalt.4 Additionally, levels of air pollutants that impact health, such as PM2.5, sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nickel (Ni), were higher in areas with a high density of buildings using No. 4 and No. 6 grade heating oils in boilers.7

In response to NYCCAS's findings and those of other researchers and advocates, NYC began issuing regulations to address public health hazards due to heavy heating oil emissions.8 In 2010, the NYC City Council passed legislation to reduce the sulfur content of No. 4 heating oil by 50%.9 Additionally, in April 2011, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued regulations requiring buildings to convert from No. 4 and No. 6 heavy heating oils to cleaner fuels, with a deadline to phase out all No. 6 heating oil by June 30, 2015, and all No. 4 heating oil by January 1, 2030. As of 2016, the NYC DEP has phased out 99.8% of No. 6 heating oil and efforts are underway to accelerate No. 4 conversions.10 These local actions were taken alongside New York State regulations that reduced the sulfur content of No. 2 heating oil from 2000 to 15 ppm (ultra-low sulfur heating oil) as of July 2012, reducing SO2 and PM2.5 emissions rates by over 95%.11

New York City partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund and ICF International to launch the NYC Clean Heat program in 2012. The program addresses the public health hazard presented by heating oil emissions and encourages and assists buildings in converting to the cleanest available fuels.10 The Clean Heat Program combined targeted outreach, technical assistance, and financing incentives for boiler conversion to accelerate compliance with the regulations. Between 2012 and 2015, the NYC Clean Heat Program resulted in nearly 6,000 heating oil conversions from No. 6 or No. 4 oil to a cleaner fuel. As a result, PM2.5 emissions from buildings previously burning these heavy heating oils reduced by 65% since 2011.

To assess the benefits of these programs, an air quality health impact modeling analysis was conducted in 2012–13. The analysis estimated that upon full implementation in 2030, New York fuel oil regulations would prevent over 300 premature deaths and over 700 emergency department visits and hospitalizations for respiratory or cardiovascular causes each year.12 Wintertime average SO2 levels declined by 68% between 2008 and 2014. Although not the only source of fine particle air pollution, these heating oil regulations contributed to a 16% annual average reduction in PM2.5 levels between 2008 and 2014.13

In the fall of 2015, NYC Clean Heat transitioned into the NYC Retrofit Accelerator,14 an expanded program that is NYC’s one-stop free resource to assist building owners and operators with energy and water efficiency upgrades and compliance with building energy regulations.10 The NYC Retrofit Accelerator is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The program offers a team of building experts who provide independent, customized technical guidance for energy and water efficiency upgrades. A component of the NYC Retrofit Accelerator is to prioritize conversions of remaining No. 4 heating oil boilers to cleaner fuels.14

Data on air quality levels and their impact on the population’s health were critical in gaining the attention of key decision makers and the public. The ability of the data to provide awareness allowed for the development and implementation of evidence-based policies and strategies to help improve the air quality of New York City. There has been significant progress, but there is still more work to do. More than 3,000 buildings in NYC are still burning No. 4 oil and must convert to a cleaner heating fuel by 2030. Eliminating the use of No. 6 heating oil in buildings and transitioning to cleaner fuels has resulted in dramatic health benefits. Additionally, converting from No. 4 and No. 6 heating oils to cleaner fuels also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the harmful emissions that contribute to global climate change.15 Increasing the efficiency of NYC’s buildings will improve local air quality, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and help NYC reach its ambitious climate goals.14


12 Kheirbek I, Haney J, Douglas S, Ito K, Caputo Jr. S, Matte T. The public health benefits of reducing fine particulate matter through conversion to cleaner heating fuels in New York City. Environmental science & technology. 2014;48(23):13573–13582.

Date Posted:
Organization Name: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
Program Name: 

New York City Community Air Survey

125 Worth St.
3rd Floor
New York, NY 10017
United States
Healthy People 2020 Topic Area(s) addressed: 
Healthy People 2020 Objective(s) addressed: 
Healthy People 2020 overarching goal addressed: 
Create social and physical environments that promote good health for all.
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