New York Has a Massive Building Air Pollution Problem

People of color are bearing the brunt of the environmental issue.

High Angle View Of Buildings In City At Sunset

Neil Hoey / EyeEm / Getty Images

When the green world talks about gas or oil in homes, the focus is often on trendy kitchen ranges and home cooks who just can’t bear to live without gas. And this is an important topic. Yet gas furnaces and boilers are at least as big of an issue, and they are one that is likely to ignite (sorry!) fierce debate in the months and years to come.

New York may be the next place where this battle is waged. In a review of recent research, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) outlines some of the impacts of building-related fossil fuel combustion in the state. And the overall picture is troubling: New York emits more building air pollution than any other state.

Talor Gruenwald, an associate with RMI, and Stephen Mushegan, manager of RMI's Carbon-Free Building program, write:

“New York State consumes more fossil fuels in its residential and commercial buildings than any other state in the country, and New York City’s buildings are responsible for a significant portion of that consumption. In New York City, burning fuels for space and water heating accounts for nearly 40 percent of the city’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” 

The problem is much broader; however, than just worsening climate impacts. Gruenwald and Mushegan also point to the massive health impacts of burning these fuels:

When space and water heating appliances such as furnaces and boilers burn gas or oil to produce heat, they emit several dangerous pollutants. These include fine particulate matter (PM2.5), oxides of nitrogen and sulfur (NOx and SOx), volatile organic compounds, and ammonia. These pollutants can cause asthma attacks, hospitalizations, and even premature death.

Just looking at premature deaths, for example, is startling. One recent study found 1,114 premature deaths in just one year, with the vast majority of those being focused in New York City. The health impact of these deaths alone is estimated at $12.5 billion, and when you factor in all the other potential health impacts like asthma attacks, missed work or school, or other factors, it’s fairly clear that this number is a gross underestimate. 

Also important to note is that the burden of these impacts is not shared equally. In fact, Gruenwald and Mushegan reference another study that showed exposure to ambient fine particulate air pollution (PM 2.5) —of which residential fuel combustion is a major source—is a whopping 32% higher for Black people in New York City, 17% higher for all people of color (POC), and 21% less than average for white people too.

One of the reasons this is now being highlighted is a push by environmental justice groups like NYPIRG to shift New York’s buildings toward electrification. The initial effort focuses on banning gas hookups in new construction and gut renovations, but it’s a fair bet that the effort will expand outwards from there—likely tackling the legacy of older buildings and rentals where many lower-income residents are being exposed.

Sonal Jessel, Director of Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, issued this statement in a press release announcing the initiative: 

“Low-income communities and communities of color bear disproportionately higher energy and pollution burdens as well as disproportionately greater impacts from climate change. We must prioritize these communities when transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, ensuring that they can afford the new energy and benefit from the jobs, infrastructure, and reduced local air pollution that will be created by this shift.” 

Of course, building electrification also offers another environmental justice opportunity—namely the creation of well-paying, green jobs. Here’s how Kevin Jackson, an electrician and member of New York Communities for Change, pitched the ban: “A gas ban for New York City creates jobs in electrical work. These are good, green jobs. This would provide thousands of jobs for us electricians.” 

Cities like San Francisco have already banned new natural gas hookups, resulting in pushback from home cooks and restaurants alike. But as Mushegan and Gruenwald’s article suggests, the issue is about much more than how hot you can sear your steak. 

People are dying. The impacts are not shared equally. And at some point, we are all going to have to have a conversation about whether citing small gas and oil power plants inside our homes is really a good idea, either for us or our neighbors. 

View Article Sources
  1. Buonocore, Jonathan J., et al. "A Decade of the U.S. Energy Mix Transitioning Away from Coal: Historical Reconstruction of the Reductions in the Public Health Burden of Energy." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 16, no. 5, 2021, p. 054030, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abe74c