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Bad Breath(e): New Study Reflects Urgent Need to Green NYC’s Black Smoke

If you’ve been on the street in New York City — and it’s doubtful you’re able to avoid that, unless you use FreshDirect more than I do — then you’ve seen the black smoke belching, all Dickensian and foul-smelling and just-plain-awful-looking, from the chimneys of some of the city’s bigger buildings. The likelihood is that you’ve breathed it in, too. And while it would certainly be a great “whodathunk” story if we could tell you that somehow all that dense black smoke was good for you, this is one of those instances where the intuitive conclusion happens to be the right one — according to a new study by New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, the soot-laden black smoke that is the main byproduct (along with heat) from so-called Number Four and Number Six Heating Oil is every bit as bad for you as it looks.

About 9,000 buildings, mostly in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx, make regular use Number Six Oil — also known as “residual” oil, since it’s comprised mostly of the funky dregs of the petroleum distillation process. The preponderance of those buildings sit, unsurprisingly, in the neighborhoods with the worst air quality in New York City. (The picture on this post is of the black smoke plume rising from the San Remo, on the Upper West Side) And with that crappy air quality come some very obvious attendant costs — IPI estimates that the particulate from Number Six Oil causes up to 188 deaths a year, and a December study by the Environmental Defense Fund pegged the cost of health care related to the pollution at $5.3 billion. While the black smoke is something of a tip-off, none of this is terribly surprising once you get a look at what Number Six Oil is.

“Heating oil is classified into six types, numbers one through six,” Kirsty Kershaw explains at HeatingOil.com (which has done some excellent work on this topic). “While there are a variety of factors that go into number designation, the important thing to note is that the higher the number, the more viscous the fuel, and the more particulate emissions. The heaviest oils, like No. 6, are so viscous that they resemble tar or asphalt at room temperature. No. 2 heating oil, a light ‘distillate’ fuel, is much cleaner, emitting a fraction of the particulate matter of the heavier oils.” Number Six Oil is, in fact, actually used in asphalt production. All of which kind of begs the question of what the hell we’re doing still breathing this stuff.

The answer, in short, is that it’s expensive for big buildings to switch from old boilers (and nightmarishly heavy metal-laden, ultra-polluting heating oil) to new. The benefits are clear enough that the city is introducing legislation to ban the use of Number Four and Number Six oil and mandate a changeover to either natural gas or cleaner-burning heating oils over a ten-year period. While it can cost up to $100,000 to replace a big boiler, and Number Six Oil is sixty cents cheaper per gallon than the alternatives — and while landlords are making their usual noises about the need for greater financial incentives to make this change — it’s hard to argue for the carrot over the stick on this one. A mix of both would be ideal, but when the broader social costs are so high, it’s only fair for the state to demand private actors to hold up their end of the social contract. And also, that Number Six Oil is just nasty.

You can download the Institute for Policy Integrity study as a PDF here.

UPDATE: Fixed to reflect that IPI is affiliated with New York University School of Law, and not New York Law School. Apologies for the error.

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