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Connecticut Drivers Using More Gasoline, Creating Bigger Pollution And Health Problems

Connecticut motorists are burning significantly more gasoline than they did three years ago, a trend that health and environmental experts warn is seriously bad news for children, the elderly and anyone with lung problems.

In 2016, Connecticut consumed more than 1.7 billion gallons of gasoline, according to estimates by the state Council on Environmental Quality. That was an increase of 48.8 million gallons over the amount used in 2013.

Burning more gasoline means more air pollution and bigger health risks for everyone in the state, experts say. Researchers at New York University issued a study last year that estimated 168 deaths a year in Connecticut are caused by ozone and particulate pollution – much of that coming from cars and trucks.

Low gas prices in recent years have encouraged Americans to increase their driving mileage, industry analysts say. Another contributing factor, state officials believe, is that consumers appear to be buying bigger, more powerful and more gas-guzzling vehicles like SUVs and trucks.

Approximately 62 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. during the first quarter of this year were SUVs and pickup trucks, a 5 percent increase from motor vehicle sales for the same period in 2016, the New York Times reported.

Richard McAllister, general sales manager for Hartford Toyota, said the national trend toward bigger vehicles that use more gas is definitely reflected in Connecticut sales. "We used to be more of a passenger car dealership," McAllister said, selling fuel-efficient cars like Camrys for the urban market.

"We used to do two-to-one Camry sales to Rav4s [Toyota's crossover SUV model]," McAllister said. "Now it's almost two-to-one sales of Rav4s to Camrys. It's pretty much a switch." He puts the change to bigger, more powerful vehicles down to the low gasoline prices of recent years.

Karl Wagener, the environmental council's executive director, said that "gas consumption is going up at a faster rate than vehicle miles traveled."

"You can conclude that if this trend continues … we're not going to meet our greenhouse gas emission goals," Wagener said of the target Connecticut has set for cutting pollution.

Despite state and federal incentives designed to encourage sales of electric cars, only about 2 percent of all vehicles sold in the state run on electricity. The state program, which offers rebates of up to $5,000 for electric car purchases, was part of an ambitious campaign with seven other states to put 3.3 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2025. Many experts doubt that target can be met.

The environmental council, which is the state's environmental watchdog, recently reported that Connecticut's overall air quality was "better in 2016, on average, than in any recent year." But state experts say increasing gas consumption, warmer summers due to climate change and fears about President Donald Trump's pro-coal and oil policies are raising serious concerns about the future.

Pollution drifting into Connecticut from old coal- and oil-fired power plants in the South and Midwest continue to be a major air quality problem. The state last week filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force the cleanup of a coal-burning power generating facility in Pennsylvania.

But gas-powered cars, trucks, lawn mowers and other equipment are the largest Connecticut-produced source of greenhouse gases and a major reason for Connecticut's sometimes lousy air quality, according to state environmental officials.

"I would be concerned about any trend showing an increase in fuel use in the transportation sector," said Paul Ferrell, an assistant director of the state bureau in charge of improving Connecticut's air quality.

In 2016, there were 31 days in Connecticut when the air quality was bad enough to be listed as "unhealthful air days" by state agencies. No other state in New England had more than 11 unhealthy air days, according to the Council on Environmental Quality.

Just last week, Connecticut officials issued the first "Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups" air pollution alert of the year because of the unusually high heat.

The New York University study also estimated that ozone and particulate pollution is sending an average of 472 people in the state to hospitals and doctors annually for health problems that include heart attacks and bronchitis.

Dr. David Hill, a pulmonologist and a member of the American Lung Association's Connecticut leadership board, said he believes the study's conclusion about the number of people in the state who seek medical attention as a result of air pollution-related issues "is probably an underestimate." He said his office's waiting room fills up fast with patients on bad air days.

Experts say Connecticut's air is considerably better than a decade ago. But the fear is that increasing temperatures resulting from climate change and the trend toward higher consumption of gasoline could combine to put a halt to any improvements in air quality and possibly lead to a decline in healthy air.

Hill said Connecticut's air quality isn't just an issue for kids, the elderly and people in bad health. He said even athletes who exercise outdoor on high-ozone days "put themselves at risk … The worse the air quality gets, the worse it is for everyone."

Ozone pollution is created when nitrogen oxides – largely from motor vehicle emissions – and organic compounds react in the presence of sunlight. Heat also increases the pollution, and global warming made 2016 one of Connecticut's hottest years on record.

"We have an ozone problem in Connecticut," Farrell said. He added that 67 percent of all nitrogen oxide emissions in the state come from cars, trucks, lawn mowers and other off-road gas-burning equipment.

Despite overall air quality improvements in recent years, Connecticut continues to have some of the worst ozone pollution in the Northeast.

"I tell people [the effect of breathing ozone pollution] is like getting a sunburn on your lungs," Farrell said.

The American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report for 2016 warned that "Fairfield County remains ranked as the most polluted county in Connecticut and the most polluted county in the entire New York-Newark metro area for ozone pollution."

But the association's report gave every county in Connecticut a grade of F for ozone pollution in 2016, and showed no improvement over 2015.

Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association's northeastern chapter, said those ozone levels put Connecticut residents "at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm."

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