Double Threat: Greenhouse Gases That Are Also Poisoning You Now

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Eati Akter

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Last month, the Canadian province of British Columbia became the largest school jurisdiction in North America to commit to switching entirely from diesel to electricity-powered school buses. Buses currently transport more than 100,000 students there. A new coalition of educators, health professionals and environmental groups, the Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance, is pushing for a national switch to electric as a way to eliminate at least one source of toxic pollutants, diesel exhaust, from endangering the vulnerable bodies of young people. The province of Quebec has committed to achieving a 65% electric school bus fleet by 2030.

In doing so, the Canadians are recognizing a fundamental fact of climate pollution often missed by the media, but relevant to all no matter what side of the U.S. border you’re on.  Greenhouse gas pollutants not only have long-term impacts on the Earth’s planetary balance, they often cause immediate harm to the health of those exposed directly to their fumes.

 Rising concerns over diesel are highlighting the two sides of the same climate pollution coin. Greenhouse gases like CO2 and nitrous oxide are emitted into the atmosphere from diesel engines. At the same time, some 40 different toxic air contaminants are emitted into the lungs of those in the proximity of the buses, trucks, ships and locomotives powered by those same diesel engines.

 The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that diesel from trucks, buses and locomotives contributes about a quarter of all transport-related emissions to the atmosphere, 472 million metric tons of CO2. And there is mounting evidence of the dangers from diesel exhaust for students (or anyone else) either driving in a diesel-powered bus or truck, waiting nearby while it’s idling or living near thoroughfares where they pass by. Such exposure, according to the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, can contribute to “lung cancer, reduced lung capacity, adverse cardiovascular impacts, increased risk of heart disease and asthma.”

All these impacts are far more serious for young boys and girls; their neurodevelopment can also be affected. Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism among children in both Canada and in the United States, according to the Canadian Lung Association and the American Lung Association. And researchers who conducted a 2019 study sponsored by the U.S.-based National Bureau of Economic Research reported a correlation between decreased diesel emissions at public schools in Georgia and gains in academic performance.

Most cars in the U.S. do not use diesel for their primary fuel source, but most school buses and trucks do. The COVID-19 epidemic gave new impetus to the effort to rein in diesel on the roads: A Harvard School of Public Health study concluded that exposure to air pollution, like diesel exhaust, increased by at least 8% the likelihood of dying from the coronavirus. Children, as well as older adults, are particularly vulnerable to the effects, according to the latest State of the Air report from the American Lung Association.

Those most exposed to that pollution are people in low-income communities of color, who are more likely to live within proximity of the major transit centers — highways, ports and airports — that are the primary source of the pollutants. According to the Lung Association report, 54% of those exposed to the most dangerous combination of toxic air particles are Black or Latino. Four out of five of the cities with the most particulate air pollution, to which diesel is a major contributor, are in California, according to the Lung Association. (The California top four are Visalia, Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera-Hanford and Los Angeles-Long Beach; the fifth is Fairbanks, Alaska). Last month California’s Air Resources Board called for a phase-out of all diesel-powered trucks and buses in the state by 2036, an initiative that is awaiting approval by the U.S. EPA.

April was indeed the cruelest month for boosters of diesel, who have long claimed it’s a transitional fuel with less greenhouse gas consequences than oil. That has been disputed — diesel powered vehicles generally get more miles to the gallon, but they emit greenhouse gases every inch of those miles — and the impetus to rid schools and highways of diesel is driven as much by concern over its health impacts as it is by diesel’s contribution to the planet’s greenhouse gas load. There are plenty of stories to be done on how deeply intertwined greenhouse gas pollution is with pollution that’s acutely toxic on an immediate person-to-person level. In every case, the toxins are particularly destructive to young people due to their rapidly developing neural, reproductive and immune systems.

The Particulates of Plastic

Plastics are another example of the way fossil fuels pose both long-term threats to the planet while immediately endangering people. Petrochemicals, not gasoline, will likely be the biggest driver of world oil demand by 2030, according to the International Energy Administration.

Plastic, of course, is oil in a physical form. It’s made from the same raw material as oil or diesel — fossil fuels, turned into petrochemicals.

There is a key difference, however: It takes a lot more processing to turn fossils exhumed from the Earth into a malleable form to be shaped into the plastic containers, packaging and all the other plastic effluvia of everyday life. That includes heating hydrocarbons to as high as 1,560 degrees Fahrenheit to get liquid or gaseous fossil fuels into a form where they can be molded into plastic. At every step of the way, the process of producing plastic emits toxins, including ethylbenzene and styrene, which are toxic to the neurological and respiratory systems; many, like benzene, are potent carcinogens.

Practically every toxic substance released last February during the infamous East Palestine train derailment — and train car explosion — is produced routinely from any one of some 130 petrochemical refineries in the United States. Many of the cars in that horrific train derailment were filled with vinyl chloride, the raw material that is essential to producing plastic: What we saw go up in flames are versions of the toxic substance that frequently leaks from those facilities into the neighborhoods surrounding refineries.

Some 2,400 of the chemicals commonly used in the manufacturing of plastic are considered by the European Union’s top chemical regulatory body to be “substances of potential concern” due to their toxicity, persistence in the environment or capacity for accumulating in the body. At least 1,254 of those substances are considered of “high concern” by the EU due to their widespread use in the plastic and other industries. At the same time, plastic producers in the U.S. are copious producers of greenhouse gases, responsible collectively for about 232 million tons of such emissions in 2020, according to Beyond Plastic, a plastic research center at Bennington College.

Plastic and Diesel tell similar stories, and there’s another similarity between them: They’re often produced by the same companies, which are the same companies that drill for and process fossil fuels into oil. Completing the circle: The second biggest producer of diesel in the United States, and the top producer of single-use plastic in the world, is ExxonMobil, which recently reported record first-quarter profits.

My previous column described a group of teenagers and young adults in Montana and Hawaii who are suing their home states for promoting fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure that is exacerbating the impacts of climate change and thus undermining their constitutional rights to a “healthful” future. That damage to their future prospects is only one part, it turns out, of the threats they face while coming up in a world transformed by greenhouse gases. The toxins that arise while those gases are being generated also contribute to the threat that they, and all of us, face from the burning of fossil fuels.

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