Study suggests heavy-duty trucks not primary source of vehicle pollution deaths

June 8, 2021

Tyson Fisher


There is a vehicle pollution problem in the Northeast, and trucks are not the main culprit.

A study published on Tuesday, June 8, looked into deaths in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions caused by ozone and fine particulate matter from vehicle emissions. The research conducted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment and the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health accounts for numbers in 2016.

According to the study, vehicle pollution from tailpipe emissions in 2016 led to more than 7,000 deaths in the studied regions. That pollution is traveling across state lines, compromising the health of people who live downwind. All 12 states and the District of Columbia revealed significant health effects from vehicle pollution.

Five vehicle types were studied. Across the two regions, light-duty trucks, including SUVs, were responsible for more than 2,400 deaths, the most among the vehicle types. Behind light-duty trucks were light-duty passenger vehicles (1,881) and heavy-duty trucks (1,465). Adjusted by ton for ton, buses in the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area had the largest health damages at $4 million for every ton of particulate matter emitted.

Vehicle pollution by vehicle type accounts for the entire region. However, the problems vary when narrowed down by city or state.

“While particulate matter from New York City buses has the largest impact per ton of emissions in New York, in Massachusetts it’s heavy-duty trucks in Boston, and in Virginia it is light-duty autos,” Jonathan Buonocore, a researcher at the Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, said in a statement. “As policymakers consider how to transform the transportation sector – the largest source of carbon pollution – this research offers a roadmap for where to target investments to most cost-effectively improve air quality and health.”

By estimated monetized health damages, the cost of vehicle pollution in the region is in the billions for just one year.

States that suffered the most damage were New York ($21 billion), Pennsylvania ($13 billion) and New Jersey ($12 billion). Those numbers reflect data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016. States that took the smallest hit were Vermont ($227 million), Maine ($762 million) and New Hampshire ($773 million). In total, vehicles emissions in the regions cost more than $73 billion in health damages in just one year.

Political entities heavily affected by out-of-state vehicle pollution:

  • District of Columbia, where 85% of total deaths are from vehicle emissions outside D.C. Virginia emissions are the largest contributor.
  • Delaware – 84% of total deaths with Pennsylvania emissions being the largest contributor.
  • Vermont – 82% of total deaths with New York emissions being the largest contributor.

One issue certain populations have to deal with is vehicle pollution coming from out of state. According to the study, vehicle emissions from many states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, caused more out-of-state deaths than in-state. Researchers concluded that state-by-state initiatives to reduce emissions will not prevent deaths in states that have taken actions. Regionwide efforts need to be taken in order to prevent emissions-related deaths, the study states. LL

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