All living things—from you to the grass growing through the sidewalk—need clean air and clean water to live. When a harmful substance enters the air or water, it can threaten their health or even their lives. There’s a name for this threat: pollution.
Some pollution comes from natural sources, such as smoke from wildfires. However, most pollution is due to human activities. All kinds of things that society depends on, from cars to fertilizers to power plants, can pollute the environment. Ironically, the systems we’ve built to make our lives easier damage the air, water, and soil we need to survive.
Pollution occurs everywhere that humans live. However, in the U.S., New York has less pollution than most other states. An analysis by U.S. News ranks the Empire State as number 11 out of 50 states for low pollution levels. New York also ranks in the top ten for air and water quality. But while the state is above average, there’s still room for improvement.
A 2022 Environmental Integrity Project report evaluated levels of water pollution throughout the U.S. It found that about 11% of New York’s rivers and streams are polluted enough to limit their use. The state also has “impairments” to 55% of its lakes and reservoirs and 27% of its bays, harbors, and estuaries. These numbers are above average for the U.S., but they’re certainly not impressive.
New York’s drinking water is also better than average. According to U.S. News, the state has 1.13 violations of federal drinking water standards per 100,000 residents. That’s better than the national average of 2.07 violations per 100,000, but it’s still too many. From 2019 through 2021, 30 New York water utilities violated standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
New York’s air quality is above average, too. According to U.S. News, the state has an average of 47 days per year with unhealthy air quality. That’s less than half the national average of 104. However, some parts of the state have cleaner air than others. A 2022 report from the American Lung Association (ALA) gives five New York counties failing grades for ozone pollution. Ozone, the main component of smog, causes a variety of health problems, particularly heart and lung diseases.
The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) records releases of specific harmful chemicals throughout the U.S. The 2021 TRI shows that New York had just over 277 pounds of toxic pollution per square mile of area. That puts New York well below average for land pollution, at number 41 out of 56 states and territories.
One of the biggest causes of pollution in New York—and most other places—is fossil fuel use. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. But that’s far from the only way they pollute. Burning them also releases fine particles (soot) that are harmful to lung health. It produces chemicals that contribute to smog and acid rain. And the list goes on and on.
Fossil fuel pollution comes from a variety of sources. Other pollutants enter the environment from industrial plants, farms, sewage, and runoff from urban areas.
One of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas in New York is tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks, and buses. Vehicles are also a leading source of ground-level ozone pollution. Ozone, formed by the reaction of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic chemicals, is the main component of smog. Breathing it in contributes to asthma and a variety of other health problems. NYC Health estimates it’s responsible for 400 deaths a year in New York City alone.
The majority of Empire State residents heat their homes with fossil fuels, including natural gas and fuel oil. According to one estimate, New York uses more fossil fuel in residential and commercial buildings than any other state. In many areas, buildings are responsible for far more pollution than cars. In New York City, for instance, nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. Fossil fuel use in the city’s buildings also accounts for more than twice as much NOx pollution as cars.
Although power plants aren’t as big a pollution source as buildings, they still play a role. According to the Energy Information Administration, New York state gets nearly half its electricity from natural gas. Five of the state’s 10 biggest power plants rely on natural gas as a fuel source.
Toxic chemicals released from industrial sites can pollute the air, water, and land. According to the TRI, the biggest offenders in 2021 were:
Not all pollutants are covered on the TRI. Emerging contaminants, or ECs, are a class of water pollutants that aren’t covered under environmental laws. Examples include agricultural waste products, household cleaners, and drug residues found in sewage. They can cause a wide range of health problems, including cancer and hormone disruption. In New York, sources of ECs include agriculture, industry, runoff from cities, and leaching from landfills.
New York City is the Empire State’s biggest city, and also its dirtiest. In the ALA report, the five counties with failing grades for ozone pollution are in or near the Big Apple. Likewise, a 2021 RMI report shows that this part of the state has the worst NOx emissions from buildings. Other counties with above-average pollution levels also contain major cities, such as Buffalo and Rochester. The town with the best air quality in the state is Elmira-Corning in Chemung County. The ALA says it's one of the nation’s 10 cleanest cities, with zero days high in particle pollution or ozone.
When it comes to land and water pollution, the picture is slightly different. According to the TRI, the county with the most toxic releases is Queens County, part of New York City. Other high-pollution areas include nearby Suffolk County and Erie and Niagara Counties in the Buffalo metropolitan area. However, Oneida and Onondaga Counties also rank high despite having no large cities. The cleanest areas—Columbia, Franklin, Orleans, and Richmond Counties—are scattered about the state.
Pollution threatens New Yorkers’ health in many ways. Pollutants in drinking water can cause cancer, harm child development, and damage the kidneys, liver, and immune system. Air pollution is a major cause of lung diseases, such as asthma. Pollution also harms New York residents indirectly. Acid rain damages buildings. Soil pollution can make food crops unsafe to eat. And water pollutants can kill fish and harm humans who eat them.
Probably the greatest single threat caused by pollution is climate change. It makes heat waves more frequent and more dangerous. It also contributes to more severe storms and causes sea level rise. These dangers are particularly acute for New York residents. Large cities, such as New York City, are heat islands where high temperatures are more deadly. The state also has coastal regions threatened by storms and rising seas.
Pollution doesn’t affect all New Yorkers equally. Its dangers are generally greater in low-income and minority neighborhoods, who are sometimes also suffering from energy poverty. For instance, these communities face significantly more exposure to air pollution, especially fine particle pollution. Deaths from this type of pollution are 28% higher in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. According to the ALA, about 45% of all New York residents at risk from air pollution are people of color.
Cleaning up pollution in these communities is an example of environmental justice (EJ). This term means ensuring that environmental laws protect everyone.
Throughout New York, efforts are under way to improve pollution across the board. These steps include:
There are many ways to help make the Empire State cleaner. The best way to reduce air pollution is to reduce your energy use. At home, set your thermostat higher in summer and lower in winter. On the road, avoid idling or drive less. Instead, use mass transit, a bike, or your feet to get around.
You can help keep the water clean, too. Sweep your sidewalk and driveway rather than using a hose, which sends debris and chemicals into storm drains. Dispose of unused drugs or cosmetics in the trash rather than flushing them down the toilet. If you live near a stream or lake, don’t mow the grass right up to the water’s edge. Leaving a buffer zone of taller grass helps filter out pollutants.
One really easy way to help the environment is to switch to community solar. Joining a community solar farm reduces fossil fuel use and supports renewable energy—and it saves you money, too! Check out the Perch website to find a community solar project near you.