Reviewed by Andrew Jenks
California State University, Long Beach
January 10, 2014
Environmental degradation often seems like an impossible problem to solve, given the seeming disconnect between increasing rates of consumption around the globe and scarce resources. But sometimes simple changes can generate impressive returns. This film examines the simple proposition that a good portion of air pollution in the world’s cities could be eliminated by stopping the unnecessary idling of cars and trucks. That simple action would save billions of barrels of oil and solve multiple health and environmental problems. New York City, for example, has one million asthmatics whose condition is greatly exacerbated by air pollution – not to mention the fact that car exhaust is a known carcinogen, as harmful as second-hand smoke. Across the United States idling is responsible for approximately 1.6 percent of US greenhouse gases and 6 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of $20 billion.
The film follows the attempt of a Wall Street banker to highlight idling’s destructive impact. He had been motivated, in part, by a brother who had died from lung cancer at the age of 57 – perhaps, he thought, from exposure to exhaust from idling cars. What started as one man’s seemingly quixotic quest had a happy ending, focusing public attention on the problem of idling and introducing legislation to combat the wasteful practice. Indeed, the banker-turned-activist discovered that there had been laws on the books against idling since 1971. Those laws, however, were almost universally ignored by both citizens and law enforcement officials. His mission was to draw attention to these laws—including a law that it is illegal in New York City to idle a car or truck engine for more than three minutes—and to put some teeth behind their enforcement.
The film comes in two versions – a longer one of about an hour and a shorter one of 30 minutes more suited for the classroom. The film provides surprising information about the impact of idling as well as commentary from numerous experts, including NPR’s “Click and Clack” car experts, Ray and Tom Magliozzi, who explain why frequently turning off a car engine and not idling is sound advice. Contrary to popular belief, idling is not good for a car engine; and frequently turning off a car engine does not degrade any part of the car’s ignition or other systems.
The documentary is well-done – and entertaining. George Pakenham, the Wall Street banker on a mission, is an engaging individual
The camera follows him as he alerts drivers in violation of the three-minute law about the law, handing them a card containing information about the little-known and never-enforced statute. Some drivers thanked him; many cursed him and told him to get lost. Some of the worst offenders were utility, ambulance and fire-truck drivers who regularly idled their vehicles even when not responding to an emergency. It was only when Pakenham teamed up with a like-minded lawyer from the Environmental Defense Fund that he was able to convince city officials to take their own idling law seriously. Pakenham’s success was not only a success for environmental protection; it also was a victory, albeit a small but important one, for grass-roots activism. This is an eye-opening documentary that draws attention to a common problem, and a solution, that few people even recognize. It also shows the link between individual actions and solving broader environmental and political problems such as energy dependence, environmental pollution, and public health challenges.
"Highly recommended. An eye-opening documentary that draws attention to a common problem, and a solution, that few people even recognize. It also shows the link between individual actions and solving broader environmental and political problems such as energy dependence, environmental pollution, and public health challenges. Well-done and entertaining...."
-Educational Media Reviews Online
MIT | August 29, 2013
Emissions from road transportation are the most significant contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000.
This graphic shows the annual average concentrations of fine particulates from U.S. sources of combustion emissions from (a) electric power generation; (b) industry; (c) commercial and residential sources; (d) road transportation; (e) marine transportation; (f) rail transportation; (g) sum of all combustion sources; (h) all sources.
Researchers from MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment have come out with some sobering new data on air pollution’s impact on Americans’ health.
The group tracked ground-level emissions from sources such as industrial smokestacks, vehicle tailpipes, marine and rail operations, and commercial and residential heating throughout the United States, and found that such air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year. Emissions from road transportation are the most significant contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000.
In a state-by-state analysis, the researchers found that California suffers the worst health impacts from air pollution, with about 21,000 early deaths annually, mostly attributed to road transportation and to commercial and residential emissions from heating and cooking.
The researchers also mapped local emissions in 5,695 U.S. cities, finding the highest emissions-related mortality rate in Baltimore, where 130 out of every 100,000 residents likely die in a given year due to long-term exposure to air pollution.
“In the past five to 10 years, the evidence linking air-pollution exposure to risk of early death has really solidified and gained scientific and political traction,” says Steven Barrett, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “There’s a realization that air pollution is a major problem in any city, and there’s a desire to do something about it.”
Barrett and his colleagues have published their results in the journal Atmospheric Environment.
Barrett says that a person who dies from an air pollution-related cause typically dies about a decade earlier than he or she otherwise might have. To determine the number of early deaths from air pollution, the team first obtained emissions data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Emissions Inventory, a catalog of emissions sources nationwide. The researchers collected data from the year 2005, the most recent data available at the time of the study.
They then divided the data into six emissions sectors: electric power generation; industry; commercial and residential sources; road transportation; marine transportation; and rail transportation. Barrett’s team fed the emissions data from all six sources into an air-quality simulation of the impact of emissions on particles and gases in the atmosphere.
To see where emissions had the greatest impact, they removed each sector of interest from the simulation and observed the difference in pollutant concentrations. The team then overlaid the resulting pollutant data on population-density maps of the United States to observe which populations were most exposed to pollution from each source.
Health impacts sector by sector
The greatest number of emissions-related premature deaths came from road transportation, with 53,000 early deaths per year attributed to exhaust from the tailpipes of cars and trucks.
“It was surprising to me just how significant road transportation was,” Barrett observes, “especially when you imagine [that] coal-fired power stations are burning relatively dirty fuel.”
One explanation may be that vehicles tend to travel in populated areas, increasing large populations’ pollution exposure, whereas power plants are generally located far from most populations and their emissions are deposited at a higher altitude.
Pollution from electricity generation still accounted for 52,000 premature deaths annually. The largest impact was seen in the east-central United States and in the Midwest: Eastern power plants tend to use coal with higher sulfur content than Western plants.
Unsurprisingly, most premature deaths due to commercial and residential pollution sources, such as heating and cooking emissions, occurred in densely populated regions along the East and West coasts. Pollution from industrial activities was highest in the Midwest, roughly between Chicago and Detroit, as well as around Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Industrial emissions also peaked along the Gulf Coast region, possibly due to the proximity of the largest oil refineries in the United States.
Southern California saw the largest health impact from marine-derived pollution, such as from shipping and port activities, with 3,500 related early deaths. Emissions-related deaths from rail activities were comparatively slight, and spread uniformly across the east-central part of the country and the Midwest.
While the study is based on data from 2005, Barrett says the results are likely representative of today’s pollution-related health risks.
Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, says Barrett’s calculations for the overall number of premature deaths related to combustion emissions agree with similar conclusions by the Environmental Protection Agency. The group’s results — particularly the breakdown of emissions by state — provide valuable data in setting future environmental policy, he says.
“A public-health burden of this magnitude clearly requires significant policy attention, especially since technologies are readily available to address a significant fraction of these emissions,” says Levy, who was not involved in the research. “We have certainly invested significant societal resources to address far smaller impacts on public health.”