Policies to reduce pollution and protect health

Emissions from cars, trucks and other engines are a primary source of harmful pollution.

Diesel exhaust from goods movement — specifically trucks, trains and marine sources — is of particular concern. The World Health Organization classifies diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans [PDF], and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that diesel emissions contribute to health problems, including premature mortality, aggravated heart and lung disease, and increased respiratory symptoms, particularly for children, the elderly, outdoor workers and other sensitive populations.

Protections at the federal, state and local levels, as well as private-sector mitigation, can make an enormous difference in protecting health.

Federal standards: Bedrock protections for all

Since the 1970s, the federal government has limited pollution from a range of sources, including power plants, industrial facilities, cars, trucks and off-road engines. Health and quality of life benefits from these protections have been substantial. For example, a 2011 analysis [PDF] estimates that the Clean Air Act provides $30 worth of health benefits for every dollar spent.

All vehicles and engines operating in the United States must comply with emissions standards for specific pollutants, including smog, soot and greenhouse gases. These requirements have been a powerful tool for improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions in newer vehicles.

Standards adopted for heavy-duty trucks in 2016 would cut over a billion tons of climate pollution and save hundreds of millions of dollars by 2035, while also benefiting public health by reducing emissions of particulate matter and smog-precursor pollutants. The new standards are supported by a broad range of stakeholders, including leading public health organizations, large companies that depend on reliable and efficient freight, and consumers. However, the Trump administration recently announced formal steps to weaken these common-sense standards, which both save consumers and truckers money and reduce pollution for families and communities.

Voluntary programs also play a major role in reducing emissions and promoting cleaner air. For example, EPA's SmartWay program has empowered companies to move goods in the cleanest, most energy-efficient way possible (and to save $27.8 billion in fuel costs) since 2004. SmartWay's clean air achievements (84 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 1,694,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 70,000 tons of particulate matter emissions avoided) are also a boon to public health.

EPA's SmartWay program has empowered companies to move goods in the cleanest, most energy-efficient way. Since 2004, SmartWay has saved 170.3 million barrels of oil — the equivalent of eliminating the annual energy use of more than 6 million homes. SmartWay's clean air achievements are also a boon to public health, with 72.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 1,458,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 59,000 tons of particulate matter emissions avoided. Companies affiliated with the SmartWay Program have also saved up to $24.9 billion in fuel costs to date.

Meanwhile, the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA), which provides funding for owners to replace their diesel equipment sooner than legally required, cut 335,200 tons of NOx pollution and 14,700 tons of particulate matter (PM2.5) since 2008. Officials estimate health benefits of $12.6 billion and up to 1,700 fewer premature deaths.

State initiatives: California's freight plan

With an increasingly uncertain outlook for national clean air protections, states are leading a transition to cleaner technologies. California is tackling freight-related transportation emissions with its California Sustainable Freight Action Plan, which sets a goal of using zero- or near-zero emissions equipment to transport freight everywhere feasible. 

This ambitious vision puts California on the right path, but the plan's ability to achieve its goals will require robust support from the public and follow-through from California legislators

Reducing exposure through city planning

The Oakland air quality maps show that air pollution levels can vary significantly by location. Cities can use air quality information and emissions data to guide planning decisions in ways that reduce residents' exposure to air pollution, for example, by building schools, hospitals or housing developments farther away from major sources of pollution like freeways. Likewise, local and regional governments can use air pollution data to guide transportation planning, and companies can incorporate this information in freight management. Similarly, local governments, companies or individuals can provide funding to install air filtration systems in areas with high levels of pollution to assist in reducing exposure to harmful toxic air.

Reducing exposure to air pollution has important benefits, but cutting emissions at the source is the most powerful tool for protecting people's health over the long term. And reducing tailpipe emissions also reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Speak up where you live

If you live in Oakland, connect with local groups like the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), who can help you take action on issues that affect Oakland air quality.

If you live elsewhere, find a group working near you. For example, Moms Clean Air Force, a national group of more than a million parents, organizes communities to protect clean air and our kids' health in 20 states.