Robin Kerner may not have specifics on what’s in the air in her 110th Street and Broadway apartment, but she senses it’s unhealthy.
“In the winter, when the windows are closed all the time, I do notice it’s harder to breathe. It makes me very concerned about what I can do to find out what’s in the air in my apartment,” Kerner said.
Kerner did not know what type of oil her building burned.
“I’m wondering how I could find that out,” she said. “It’s something we should know.”
As it turns out, Kerner’s is one of many Upper West Side residential buildings that burn No. 6 oil, also known as residual fuel oil or unrefined sludge. No. 4 and No. 6 oils emit toxic soot and nickel, substances that have serious negative consequences on health and on the climate.
The Environmental Defense Fund released a report last December that specifies the pollutants associated with No. 4 and 6 oil and outlines policy recommendations that aim to solve the city’s problem by enforcing a switch in heating oils from No. 4 and 6 to the significantly cleaner options of No. 2 oil or natural gas.
The EDF’s report singled out the Upper West Side as one of the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of “dirty buildings.” Though just 1 percent of New York City’s buildings use No. 4 or 6 oil, that 1 percent contributes to 87 percent of the City’s total soot emitted from burning heating oil. These dirty fuels are detrimental to air quality because they emit higher levels of PM 2.5 (soot), sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide than the emissions of No. 2 oil or natural gas.
“PM 2.5 is dangerous to health because the particulates are very small—the diameter of human hair—and when you inhale them, they go deep into your lungs, and there’s clear evidence that by inhaling PM 2.5, you’re at a much higher risk of serious health issues like lung cancer, asthma, heart disease, and even premature death,” said Paul Reale, chief executive officer and founder of Green Allowance and a member of Community Board 7’s Green Committee. He presented the EDF’s report at the most recent Community Board 7 meeting.
The major policy recommendation the EDF suggests is to phase out use of No. 4 and 6 in buildings by 2020. Currently, the city allows many buildings to burn dirty fuels. The only regulation is that the building’s boilers be checked every three years by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“It’s akin to a license to pollute,” Reale said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg intends to introduce regulation to eliminate use of No. 4 and 6, spokesman Jason Post said, and Isabelle Silverman, an attorney with the EDF, said that the EDF is working with the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability to issue a rule that would eventually ban the use of dirty fuels.
“No. 6 oil is cheaper than No. 2 oil, so without a rule or regulation, very few buildings are going to switch to cleaner fuels,” Silverman said. “The cleaning of dirty heating oil is really the only thing that is in the city’s power to do to clean up the air in New York City substantially.”
Upper West Side Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell has been working to address the issue by introducing legislation that would regulate the grade of heating oil that buildings use.
“I am proud to be the prime sponsor of legislation which would ban the use of No. 4 and No. 6 grade heating oil in residential buildings,” O’Donnell said. “The issue was first brought to my attention by constituents concerned about their and their family’s health. In 2008, I introduced a bill that would ban the use of No. 6 fuel oil. That bill was expanded to include a ban on No. 4 heating oil and reintroduced this legislative session.”
Environmental experts agree that residual fuel pollutants are damaging to public health. Dr. Steve Chillrud, senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and codirector of the Exposure Assessment Facility Core of Columbia’s Center for Environmental Health, said that there is a long history of studies on PM 2.5 and metals and their associations with both respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Switching to cleaner fuels “makes a lot of sense both from a health perspective and a maintenance perspective,” Chillrud said.
Chillrud suggested that buildings use ultra-low sulfur versions of No. 2, the same oil that diesel trucks now burn, as it would make a big difference in the city’s overall air quality.
Franklin Legarda is the superintendent at 905 West End Ave., a residential building that burns No. 6 oil. According to Legarda, the building burns five thousand gallons of the unrefined sludge every 15 days.
“I don’t think it’s going to change,” Legarda said when asked if the building would look into switching to a cleaner option. “It’s a big boiler.”