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Press Release

Press Release # 056-07
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

HHC James Saunders 212-788-3339
DOHMH Andrew Tucker 212-788-5290


Doctors Sign Open Letter to New Yorkers and Elected Officials Urging Support for Congestion Pricing Plan

NEW YORK CITY – July 11, 2007 – Air pollution has significant adverse health impacts, particularly for heart and lung health. New York City health officials and doctors from New York City’s medical community joined today at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan to promote the health benefits of improved air quality through a variety of measures, including congestion pricing, a plan proposed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to reduce congestion and air pollution by limiting traffic in the most heavily traveled parts of Manhattan. 

Alan D. Aviles, President of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, was joined at today’s event by Dr. Tom Matte, Medical Epidemiologist, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Dr. William Rom, Director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Bellevue Hospital; John Balbus, M.D., Chief Health Scientist, Environmental Defense; Rebecca Kalin, MA, MPH, Asthma Free School Zone, Dr. Carlos Meletiche, Assistant Director of the Emergency Department, Metropolitan Hospital Center, and Louise Vetter, CEO American Lung Association of the City of New York.

“In many communities we serve, children are hospitalized for asthma at a rate nearly four times the national average and it is the number one chronic disease in children,” said Alan D. Aviles, President, New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. “We owe the youngest most vulnerable New Yorkers the promise of a healthier future and PlaNYC’s congestion pricing plan will help us to fulfill that promise.”

“Traffic congestion contributes to poor air quality and particularly affects those who live, work, walk or attend school near busy and congested roadways,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden. “Any comprehensive strategy to improve air quality in New York City needs to address the issue of traffic emissions. If we don’t act, traffic will continue to get worse, as will its impact on air quality and on health.” 

Vehicle emission levels are higher in congested, stop-and-go traffic and while idling than they are when traffic is moving at a moderate, steady speed. While national regulations and a number of measures in PlaNYC will continue the trend toward cleaner burning vehicles, increasing traffic and congestion could reduce or even negate the benefits of these lower emission vehicles.

“The state legislature needs to pass the congestion pricing plan to reduce citizens' risk of asthma, heart disease, chronic lung disease and adverse birth outcomes. Eight leading physicians and public health researchers from the city's leading health centers are calling on the legislature to take action immediately in a letter to be released today,” said John Balbus, M.D., Chief Health Scientist, Environmental Defense.

Two air pollutants, fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone are of special concern because they worsen asthma symptoms and lead to increased emergency department visits and hospitalizations for respiratory conditions. Fine particles have also been linked to an increase in heart attacks and other heart disease and PM2.5 and ozone exposure have each been linked to excess deaths. Fine particles and ozone are both found in New York City’s air at levels that exceed federal clean air standards. Among the ten largest U.S. cities, only Los Angeles and Chicago had higher average PM2.5 levels than New York City in their metropolitan areas in 2005. Reducing traffic emissions – a significant source of PM2.5 and of pollutants that contribute to ozone – is essential to reducing traffic-related air pollution. Congestion pricing is a critical component of an overall strategy to improve air quality. 

New Yorkers with underlying chronic disease, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and diabetes are most vulnerable to the health impacts of harmful air pollutants. This includes 300,000 New York City children who have been diagnosed with asthma.

According to the most recent available data, New York City has almost twice the rate of childhood asthma hospitalizations as the nation (5.4 per 1,000 people vs. 3.1 nationally). In some neighborhoods, asthma hospitalization rates for children up to age 14 are nearly four times the national rate.

Studies show that even a slight reduction in ambient levels of PM2.5 and ozone would have a substantial health benefit, and could result in hundreds of fewer deaths annually from heart disease and respiratory conditions in New York City. The benefits of cleaner air will be greatest for the most vulnerable New Yorkers: those with preexisting lung and heart disease, and many communities with the greatest burden of these diseases stand to benefit the most from citywide air quality improvements from congestion pricing and other citywide efforts. In addition to the health benefits of reduced emissions, reducing traffic congestion and increasing the use of mass transit would contribute to the better health of New Yorkers by:

  • Increasing physical activity for commuters who switch their mode of transportation from cars to mass transit
  • Reducing stress associated with long commutes and congestion
  • Improving pedestrian safety
  • Improving response time for emergency response vehicles

Text of letter and signatories follow:
An Open Letter to the Citizens of New York State and their Elected Officials
July 9, 2007

To our fellow citizens and elected state officials:

As physicians and public health researchers committed to improving the health of all those who live and work in and around New York City, we are writing to support PlaNYC 2030's vision to make New York City's air the cleanest of any major city in the country. In particular, we wish to express our support for congestion pricing, an essential step to reduce exposure to traffic pollution now and finance the transit that will help limit the growth of traffic congestion in the future.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that living, working or going to school within approximately 500 yards of a major roadway leads to higher exposures to traffic-related air pollution and increased risks from a variety of health problems, including asthma, other chronic lung diseases, heart attacks, and adverse birth outcomes. More than 2 million New Yorkers live in this zone of higher air pollution risk. While special care must be taken to ensure that communities around the border of the restricted zone do not experience worsened air quality, Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal will go a long way towards reducing the traffic and congestion both within and around the downtown area.

With 1 in 8 New Yorkers diagnosed with asthma during their lifetimes, asthma rates in children as high as 25% in some neighborhoods, and children in New York twice as likely to need hospitalization as the national average, cleaning the air and protecting the lungs of children and adults with asthma is a health imperative for the city.

For these reasons, we strongly urge the state legislature to support PlaNYC, which contains a comprehensive approach to reducing people's exposures to harmful traffic-related pollution in New York City. In addition to measures such as cleaning up diesel vehicles and reducing engine idling, PlaNYC's introduction of congestion pricing is an essential part of the overall effort to improve health in New York. It not only will reduce traffic congestion, but by generating essential revenue, it will also provide New Yorkers with enhanced public transit options.

The timing is critical to the success of the plan. There must be an initial commitment of funding to put in place the necessary improvements in public transit service prior to the institution of congestion pricing. And right now there is a unique opportunity to receive up to $500 million in federal money to assist the city in making those investments.

The State legislature should pass the funding bills needed for this bold and visionary air pollution reduction plan. Our patients with asthma, our citizens with heart disease, and all those who are most exposed and most vulnerable to air pollution's harmful effects will live healthier lives as the result.


John M. Balbus, MD, MPH
Chief Health Scientist
Environmental Defense
Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health*

George Friedman-Jiménez, M.D.
Director, Bellevue/NYU Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic*
New York University School of Medicine

Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., M. Sc.
Professor and Chairman
Department of Community & Preventive Medicine
Professor of Pediatrics
Mount Sinai School of Medicine*

Patrick L. Kinney, Sc.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Environmental Health Sciences
Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University*

Frederica P. Perera, Dr.P.H.
Professor of Public Health
Director, Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health*
Department of Environmental Health Sciences
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University

William Rom, M.D., M.P.H.
Sol and Judith Bergstein Professor of Medicine and Environmental Medicine
Director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
New York University School of Medicine*

George D. Thurston, Sc.D.
Associate Professor of Environmental Medicine
New York University *

Leonardo Trasande, M.D., M.P.P.
Assistant Director, Center for Children's Health and the Environment
Assistant Professor, Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and
Department of Pediatrics
Mount Sinai School of Medicine*

*Institutional information is provided for identification purposes only and does not constitute institutional endorsement