Cheap Lube Costs Lives in NYC

Hidden away in the basement of many big New York City buildings is a dirty secret that could be costing New Yorkers their health, even their lives: boilers that burn cheap and dirty oil.

A new report from New York University's Institute for Political Integrity says the city could save up to 188 lives annually if landlords quit using "residual oil," the sooty leftovers from petroleum, to heat their buildings.
In its place, the authors recommend cleaner natural gas.

The study, "Residual Risks," says that soot and toxins from the cheap oil are polluting the air and the windpipes of people who live and work near the buildings. The oil, called #6, is the thickest and dirtiest grade you can buy -- generally the stuff left over after the distillation of petroleum. The pollution it causes "can travel deep into the lungs... and even slip directly into the bloodstream," according to the authors. The soot has been linked to heart disease and asthma, which already occur disproportionately in poor, urban areas.
The authors say the residents of these poor areas are victims of a policy lapse. They draw on readings of nickel, a heavy metal associated with residual oil that can lodge in the lungs, in the air around clusters of buildings in New York City. By tracking nickel concentrations during summer and winter, the researchers estimate the amount of gunk -- the technical term is particulate matter 2.5 or PM 2.5 -- emanating from boilers that use the cheapest grade of oil.

Buildings using the dirty fuel generate up to 29 percent of locally-generated wintertime soot in the city, the researchers found (the majority comes from mid-western power plants, but that's another battle). Since some 9,000 commercial and residential buildings in New York use the stuff, the report contends, it's the city's business to wean landlords off it.

It's not like #6, which resembles tar, is anyone's pride and joy. Mike Livermore, the Institute for Policy Integrity's director, tells me residual oil has lost most of its customer base -- the holdouts being marine vessels and big old buildings in the big old Big Apple.

All the more reason to phase it out. The report argues that the health benefits that would come from requiring landlords to burn something cleaner -- even lighter #2 oil, if piping natural gas doesn't seem feasible -- add up to $5.3 billion over 20 years. They also figure an extra $111 million in annual health benefits for faster conversion, to account for increased productivity after avoided deaths.

Tenants' rights often meet stiff resistance in policy debate. "Landlords are delaying the inevitable," Livermore told me. The data here, though, makes the dirty truth harder to wipe away.

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