Getting the right data leads to cleaner air in NYC

Black smoke from dirty heating oil in New York City

This New York City building is burning heavy heating oil, creating soot emissions that cause respiratory diseases.

Patti McConville


Case study


A hard look at how traffic chokes New York City’s air reveals a larger threat – soot spewing from buildings – and a solution.

  • 6,000buildings converted to cleaner heating fuels
  • Problem

    Soot triggers respiratory diseases and other serious health problems. In 2007, we sent a few dozen volunteers wearing heavy backpacks with instruments to measure air pollutants at street level, to supplement data from rooftop monitors. Though our focus was the city’s vehicle exhaust, we uncovered the bigger problem of buildings burning heavy heating oils.

  • Solution

    The backpack data helped persuade city officials that street-level monitoring tracked what people were actually breathing, leading the city to install 150 street-level monitors and require buildings to phase out dirty heating oil. In 2012, we helped the city launch NYC Clean Heat, a program that helps buildings switch to cleaner heating fuels in cost-effective ways.

  • Our role

    In addition to further research we conducted [PDF], to develop NYC Clean Heat we partnered with the city to convene a broad coalition of city officials, nonprofits and banks, shaping the $100 million financing program aimed at building owners and managers.

  • Results

    New Yorkers are breathing the cleanest air in 50 years. Since 2008, more than 6,000 buildings converted to cleaner heating fuels. The city estimates that in addition to reducing pollution, buildings that switched to cleaner fuels have reduced citywide greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 800,000 metric tons.

  • What’s next

    We’ve gone from monitors on the backs of volunteers measuring air pollution to sophisticated sensors on Google Street View cars mapping methane leaks across the country. As sensor technology advances, we can gather data more quickly and precisely to detect threats to the environment and our health.



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