by Kevin Stack
Typically, building codes, scientists, health and wellness and green building programs concentrate on indoor sources that impact human health and performance. Often the connection between land use and zoning policies, outdoor sources of pollutants and impacts on IEQ is overlooked. How land use decisions influence IEQ, however, is more critical than ever. As population grows, sprawl and vehicle miles traveled increase, the urban impact on our homes and buildings intensifies. This is especially true as codes continue to require tighter houses.
The 2016 Energy Code of New York State, and the 2016 Uniform Code of New York, requires Whole House Mechanical Ventilation to be installed in new homes, per the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code. The intake of outdoor air is a requirement of these Codes. Until the advent of energy efficiency measures, our older housing stock has always relied on air leakage/infiltration to supply the necessary “make-up” air for occupants. All studies point to the fact that our homes require adequate ventilation and a fresh air source provided for occupant health and wellness. The 2015 International Energy Conservation Code now requires that our homes become tighter and tighter (now 3ACH50, less than half the 7 ACH50 measure just 4.5 months ago). This is coupled with the requirement for outside air to be mechanically brought into the home to meet ASHRAE 62.2, is, in essence, a demand that outdoor air be used to supply fresh air to the occupants. Relying on outdoor air for IEQ assumes that the air we bring into our homes is actually fresh, with no known sources of contamination that can impact our health. After all, an energy efficient home that requires outdoor air to be mechanically brought into our homes that may contain contamination that adversely impacts human health is not the desired or intended result of the recent code requirements. This demands an in-depth review in our decision making process on how we manage land use adjacent to our homes that may impact the outdoor air quality. Research into how outdoor air quality influences indoor environmental quality is more critical than ever. This is particularly true when leading studies like the Harvard and Syracuse CoE CogFX study (http://naturalleader.com/thecogfxstudy/study-1/) suggest higher levels of ventilation enhance cognitive function and health.
Locally, the Town Board of the Town of Onondaga, in the Syracuse, NY area, has made a troubling proposal—allowing convenience stores with gas pumps (gas stations) anywhere along the 2.1 mile Route 175 Corridor (from Broad Road to Nixon Park Drive). This is an existing neighborhood of predominantly residential, ancillary residential and low-intensity mixed uses. The board also plans to remove a longstanding protection in the code that requires, fuel storage and gasoline pumps to be located at least 500 feet away from certain sensitive land uses, especially where children spend significant time—schools, playgrounds, and day care centers—as well as libraries, churches, and hospitals. The effect would be new gas stations being built immediately next to sensitive land uses, including homes, with no buffer or other code protections.
Several studies offer troubling conclusions specifically about those living near gas stations and urban levels of traffic, especially children. In 2014, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that children living near busy roads were 50% more likely to develop leukemia. This sad result is no surprise—vehicle exhaust contains benzene, formaldehyde, and various other carcinogens. A land use change, like the one that the town board is proposing, certainly will increase idling cars and traffic congestion, particularly for Onondaga Road Middle School. The impact on indoor benzene concentrations at the school would be unknown.
Many studies provide insight of the likely impacts of this Town of Onondaga proposal. A Canadian Petroleum Industry study found average benzene concentrations of 146 ppb (summer) and 461 ppb (winter) at the property borders of gas stations.
A second study looked at outdoor and indoor concentrations of benzene of houses located 98 and up to 328 feet from the property line of gas stations. Those researchers found median outdoor benzene concentrations of 3.1 ppb and 1.9 ppb in houses within 60 to 164 feet and between 196 and 328 feet of gas stations. Troublingly, median indoor concentrations at these homes were higher, hitting 4.1 and 5.2 ppb.
And perhaps worst, a third study found discrete benzene and gasoline vapors from service stations can be identified as distant as 246 feet offsite, and that the contribution of air pollution from gas stations is less important in areas of high traffic density. This means that, for an area like Onondaga Hill, allowing gas pumps will have a disproportionally harmful impact on air quality in yards, at schools and in playgrounds, as well as inside of homes because Onondaga Hill retains a residential, low-intensity character (a fact the town board itself confirmed in March 2016).
What is missing is how land use and policies that encourage uses like gas pumps/stations, and the pollution they emit, will significantly worsen IEQ and increase adverse health outcomes, especially for our most vulnerable, our children, as code requires tighter houses, with outdoor air supplied to the indoor environment.
However, some states and several municipalities are leading the way in protecting IEQ through land use decisions by, at a minimum, enacting buffers between sensitive land uses like homes, schools, playgrounds, churches and medical facilities and gas stations.
And State and federal agencies have recognized the harmful air emissions and other impacts of gas stations. For example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) conducted a study and concluded that new sensitive land uses should not be built within 300 feet of large gas stations. CARB defines sensitive land uses as residences, schools, day care centers, playgrounds and medical facilities. All of these land uses are found in abundance throughout the Onondaga Hill community.
And the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not allow FHA insurance for any residential property located within 300 feet of an “above ground or subsurface stationary storage tank with the capacity of 1,000 gallons or more of flammable or explosive material,” including gasoline and motor fuels. Professional appraisers are required to reduce the value of homes located near gas stations and traffic generating uses.
Editor’s note: The Onondaga Town Board plans to hold a public hearing on allowing gas stations anywhere along this 2.1 mile corridor in the Town of Onondaga. The date and time is 6pm on March 6, 2017 at Storer Auditorium in Ferrante Hall at Onondaga Community College, Syracuse, NY. Any town residents interested in IEQ or air quality generally should make their voices heard before the actions of a town board irreversible impacts our air quality and quality of life forever. Healthy Indoors will keep a watchful eye on this environmental story that is literally occurring in our own back yard.