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Progress Watch

Cleanest air in 50 years! How did New York do it?

Air quality in New York and many other US cities has been getting better since the 1970s. One factor in New York's recent improvement: a phase-out of heavily polluting heating oil in older buildings.

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Mayor Bloomberg, who has been outspoken during his last two terms about the need to address climate change, attributed the dramatic improvement of air quality in New York to the city's “Clean Heat” program, which phased out the use of the most heavily polluting heating oils.

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“The continued health benefits of this conversion to cleaner heating fuels will make it the single biggest step to save lives since we began our comprehensive smoking control program,” said Bloomberg, who led the ban of smoking in most public spaces in the city, even outdoors. “City government’s No. 1 responsibility, I’ve always thought, is protecting the health and safety of our people.”

The cleaner air prevented 800 deaths and led to 2,000 fewer emergency room visits and hospitalizations from lung problems, compared with 2008, the city said.

These improvements came as the city's program targeted 10,000 mostly older buildings, each with furnaces burning the highly polluting heating oils. Since 2011, some 2,700 were converted to burn cleaner fuels, with another 2,500 now in the process of converting.

"The substantial reductions in air pollution we're seeing translate into healthier New Yorkers who are breathing cleaner air," said Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications at the American Lung Association of the Northeast, in a statement. "As more buildings convert to cleaner-burning fuels, we will see even greater health benefits.”

Along with other state requirements for cleaner-burning fuels, these efforts have already resulted in a 69 percent drop of sulfur dioxide in the city's air since 2008. Soot pollution, too, has dropped 23 percent since 2007. And according to the city, the biggest improvements of air quality came precisely in those neighborhoods where buildings had converted their boilers to cleaner-burning fuels.

Other cities, however, have seen a decline in air quality. In August last year, San Antonio, the nation’s seventh largest city, fell into the EPA’s “monitored non-attainment” status, which kicks in when a region fails to meet federal ozone standards. The city also failed to meet its own air-quality goals, attributing it to a 16 percent rise in its population and an increase in local oil production.

Seven other cities saw their year-round levels of particle pollution increase, including Fresno, Calif.; Allentown, Pa.; and Atlanta. 

"The importance of cleaner air cannot be overstated," said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. "Clean air protects public health, makes it easier for children and seniors to enjoy the outdoors, and saves taxpayer money by cutting down on hospitalizations triggered by air pollution."

Experts hailed the New York program as a model for other cities to follow. 

"Everybody knows what we have to do,” Bloomberg said at Thursday’s news conference. “There's no new science here. Stop putting the stuff in the air and you will clean up the air.”

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