The Bulletin

New study estimates 485 Virginians died prematurely in 2016 as a result of transportation emissions

By: - June 10, 2021 12:02 am

Interstate 81, shown here from the northbound side in Montgomery County, just north of Exit 114, is getting an influx of state transportation funding from a deal that was among the most significant developments of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

A study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health released this week calculated that 485 premature deaths in Virginia in 2016 were due to ozone and fine particulate matter emitted by cars, trucks and buses within the region. 

Of those deaths, the study estimates that 334 were due to in-state emissions, while vehicle emissions from Virginia caused approximately 535 premature deaths in other states. 

“On road vehicular emissions contribute to the formation of fine particulate matter and ozone which can lead to increased adverse health outcomes near the emission source and downwind,” the authors wrote in the journal Environmental Research Letters

The study, which was conducted as part of the Transportation, Equity, Climate and Health Project, examined emissions of ozone and a type of particulate matter known as PM2.5 due to light-duty passenger cars and trucks, medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses in 12 Mid-Atlantic and northeastern states as well as Washington, D.C. 

The TRECH Project is a multi-university effort “to quantify potential health outcomes associated with a range of cap and invest scenarios under the proposed Transportation and Climate Initiative.” 

Virginia has been involved in developing the Transportation and Climate Initiative but has not yet signed a memorandum of understanding committing the state to the program. As currently designed, TCI would set a declining regional cap on transportation emissions and would require fuel suppliers — the companies that sell and transport gas and diesel — to purchase emissions allowances in an auction. Auction proceeds would then go back to participating states. 

The General Assembly this winter also committed Virginia to more stringent transportation emissions standards set by California and is developing programs to incentivize electric vehicle adoption. 

Numerous studies have attempted to quantify the impacts of transportation emissions on premature deaths and disease. One fall 2020 study by the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action that looked only at PM2.5 emissions from light-duty vehicles put estimated annual premature deaths at 190. 

The Harvard-UNC study “confirms what Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action learned from our study of the health impacts of transportation pollution in Virginia,” said organization chair and pediatrician Samantha Ahdoot. “Tailpipe emissions are bad for our health. Reducing vehicle pollution helps us all lead longer and healthier lives.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.