The Pittsburgh region struggles with poor air quality, ranking as one of the top 10 most polluted cities in the nation with regard to short- and long-term particle pollution. Diesel exhaust contains many toxic air pollutants, carcinogens, ozone precursors, and fine particulate matter. As a result, people in Southwestern Pennsylvania have a significantly higher than average risk of developing cancer due to exposure to air pollution, as well as heart and lung disease, adverse birth outcomes, and premature death. Whether we are driving our on-road vehicles, earthmoving, building a new building, or demolishing a structure, reducing diesel emissions should be an important priority in the region.
While people of all ages and those with pre-existing heart or lung diseases are especially vulnerable to air pollution, construction workers receive the most potent dose of toxic diesel emissions, as they work around the equipment each day. The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined public health risks from diesel pollution in over 12,000 mining industry workers exposed to diesel particles and found three-fold increased risk of both lung cancer and premature mortality. Researchers also found that workers who are continuously exposed to diesel exhaust are particularly at risk, such as the 1.8 million heavy truck drivers and 460,000 heavy construction equipment operators in the U.S. (as estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008). Additionally, lifetime exposure to diesel exhaust in some U.S. urban areas with high levels of diesel pollution could carry similar risks.
Both construction companies and owners can implement solutions to help reduce worker inhalation of diesel emissions and reduce air pollution from construction sites. Developers, institutions, and owners that fund and contract construction projects can adopt strong “clean construction” policies that require diesel particulate filters on all on-site equipment and prohibit unnecessary idling. For those organizations pursuing LEED certification, the U.S. Green Building Council has a LEED Clean Construction Pilot credit that rewards the reduction of particulate matter emitted by diesel engines used during construction projects.
According to the Northeast Diesel Collaborative, “the construction industry uses more diesel engines than any other sector. Of the 2 million diesel engines currently used in construction equipment across the nation, 31% were manufactured before the introduction of emissions regulations. These backhoes, cranes, and bulldozers account for 32% of all nitrogen oxide and 37% of fine particle emissions from mobile sources, and their reputation for remaining in service for decades creates a pollution problem for years to come.”
The good news is that technology and funding is readily available today that can help you dramatically reduce diesel emissions by upwards of 90%. The Build it with Clean Diesel Program is currently providing significant financial assistance to qualified small construction companies that wish to upgrade their equipment to reduce emissions in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Still need a little more convincing? Local to Pittsburgh, Chatham University, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy have all instituted clean construction policies into their projects in the last two years. You can follow their lead by establishing your own clean construction policy and including clean construction requirements in your contract specifications.
In addition to the voluntary measures these local institutions have taken, Pittsburgh City Council recently passed the “Clean Construction Diesel Operations” ordinance, which replaces the old clean construction legislation passed in 2011. The new legislation should make it easier for both the City to monitor and verify compliance with the rule, and for contractors to understand what is expected of them. The ordinance will require the use of best available retrofit technology on all diesel equipment (non-road equipment 50 horsepower or greater and on-road vehicles 14,000 lbs or more) used on City construction projects having a total cost of $2.5 million or more. The new legislation becomes effective October 1, 2016. If you are interested in the text of the legislation, it can be found here.
The benefits of implementing a strong clean construction policy now will be realized for many years to come. As construction companies, developers, owners, governments, and other entities work together to address harmful emissions, they’re also protecting workers, employees, and residents, and prioritizing sustainable practices. Ensuring clearer air by reducing diesel emissions is just one way to get people thinking more about how the decisions they make daily at work affect people and the environment.