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Smog at sunrise with ozone in the valleys over the Great Smokey Mountains

Get out of cars and onto buses and bikes, say health officials, if you want to beat any number of heath problems… while changing the paradigm

By Gabe Rivin

Next time you’re driving on the highway, you might spot a billboard about public health instead of one about the next fast-food joint.

That’s at least the intention behind an expanding campaign by North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center, which is trying to educate the public about the connections between driving, air pollution and health problems that can result from breathing dirty air. The campaign, which began last September with a series of educational billboards, is hitting radio airwaves and TV stations next January, in markets across the state.

A billboard design from the Clean Energy Technology Center, whose education campaign aims to raise awareness about the connection between car pollution and public health. Photo courtesy Clean Energy Technology Center

Whether a billboard or a public service announcement, the center’s message is the same: Driving gas-powered cars is costly both to our wallets and our health, and we have other transportation options, like biking or taking the bus.

“We want to increase awareness about choices folks have in their lives to reduce transportation-related emissions,” said Anne Tazewell, who manages the clean transportation program at the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center.

The stakes of the issue are high. Auto transit in North Carolina is a major source of air pollution, some of which can be harmful to human health.

Automobiles, including trucks, are the state’s largest source of ozone pollution and particle pollution, said Tom Mather, a public information officer with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Those pollutants – ozone and fine particles – are especially concerning to health researchers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says particle pollution causes several health problems, including heart attacks, asthma and lung disease. Ground-level ozone, the EPA says, contributes to the creation of smog and can cause respiratory problems, such as increases in the frequency of asthma attacks.

North Carolina currently meets all federal air standards with the exception of ozone violations in seven counties of the Charlotte metropolitan area, according to Mather.

But health research indicates that the current federal standard, a concentration of 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air, is not strict enough to protect human health, according to the American Lung Association.

In response to a legal challenge from the ALA and others, the EPA may soon update its standards. In an email interview Mather said that “it is widely believed that EPA will propose a more stringent ozone standard somewhere in the range of 60-70 parts per billion,” and that that could have wide-reaching effects in the state.

Photo courtesy Simone ramella flickr creative commons.

“If EPA sets the standard at or near the low end of that range, most of NC – and the entire Eastern United States – will be out of compliance,” Mather said.  “If set at the upper end of that range, we are likely to have compliance issues in some of our larger metropolitan areas.”

Slowing down for air pollution and gas prices

Regardless of the EPA’s decision, N.C. State’s campaign offers residents the clear message that, through individual decisions, they can make a difference.

“I share a car with my son, who has a much heavier foot than I do,” Tazewell said. “He averages 40 miles per gallon and I average 50.”

Those sorts of decisions can have implications both at the doctor’s office and the bank. At higher speeds, engines operate less efficiently, using more gas to travel the same distance and emitting more air pollution.

Citing federal estimates, the Clean Energy Technology Center calculates that after hitting 50 miles per hour, every increase of five miles per hour costs an additional 25 to 50 cents per gallon, assuming that gas costs $3.54. That means driving a Toyota Camry at 75 miles per hour costs the equivalent of $5.19 per gallon, according to their estimates.

But the costs extend beyond the gas pump. In one billboard, the group points out that asthma is the top cause of school absences among children. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 10 percent of children in the state have asthma.

Raising this sort of awareness is a first for the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, whose services traditionally have included biofuels research, energy-efficiency assessments and policy analysis, among other technical areas. But with funding from the state’s Department of Transportation, the center ventured out of its traditional role in an attempt to build the public’s awareness about the complex relationships between transportation and health.

These sorts of campaigns don’t traditionally have large effects on people’s decisions, according to Sherée Thaxton Vodicka, the executive director of the North Carolina Alliance of YMCAs.

“If your goal, on the other hand, is not really changing behavior but just changing people’s perceptions, then they actually are pretty successful,” she said.

Staff from the Clean Energy Technology Center and Triangle Clean Cities, a public-private group that works to improve air quality. Photo courtesy Clean Energy Technology Center

Vodicka is an experienced health communicator and serves as the chair of Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina, a group that promotes healthy eating and physical activity. She said that in campaigns like N.C. State’s, one key is to make sure that the message resonates with the intended audience.

“It’s really easy to sit in a room with a bunch of colleagues who are experts at whatever the topic might be, and come up with a campaign,” she said. “But it’s really important to get audience input, and to make sure what you’re trying to say is in fact what they’re reading from your ad campaign.”

Community groups can also be important participants in education campaigns, helping to spread materials and ideas, Vodicka said. That sort of grassroots advocacy helps make up for the disparity in funding between public-health advocacy and the private sector, she added.

Individuals’ limits

But while N.C. State’s education campaign stresses individuals’ choices, those choices can be limited by larger, systemic problems.

Those who want to use public transit may find themselves constrained from doing so, given the added time to their commute or the limits of public services, according to Noreen McDonald, an associate professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of city and regional planning.

The skyline of Los Angeles, whose smog is partially a result of the city’s large dependence on car commuting. Photo courtesy U.S. EPA

“If transit is infrequent or the stops are located far from an individual’s house, this would limit opportunities to use transit,” she said in an email interview.

At the same time, active forms of transportation, such as biking, can come with their own perils.

McDonald said that “cyclists on routes with high levels of auto traffic likely inhale significantly more pollution than other road users,” even pedestrians and car passengers.

Public policy has an effect on individuals’ decisions too, she said. If communities fail to develop safe public infrastructures, people can feel discouraged from using public transit or an active form of transportation.

Still, studies have shown that regular exercise can improve people’s health. That includes children who walk and bike to school, McDonald said.

So if N.C. State’s campaign is successful, you might look away from the billboards or tune out from the radio and notice that the streets are increasingly filled with bikers and pedestrians.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...