Gas Pumps to Get Climate, Health Warning Labels in Cambridge, MA

Source: By Sebastian Blanco, Car & Driver • Posted: Monday, December 21, 2020

The move comes in the same week that a girl’s death in the U.K. was officially classified as caused by air pollution.

gas station at night
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts, this week became the first city in the U.S. to put health and environment warning labels on its gas pumps.
  • In related news, a nine-year-old girl in South London, England, became the first person whose death certificate lists her cause of death as “air pollution exposure.”
  • The coroner’s decision came after a years-long fight by the girl’s mother, who said it wasn’t just about justice, but also “about other children, who are walking around cities with high levels of air pollution.”

Ella Kissi-Debrah is not the first person to die from the impacts of air pollution, but this week she became the first to have “air pollution exposure” listed as a cause on her death certificate. Kissi-Debrah was a nine-year-old girl who passed away in 2013 following a severe asthma attack, and in the years since, her mother has fought tirelessly to get her cause of death labeled for the world to see. She worked with a human rights lawyer to collect evidence about just how much pollution her daughter was exposed to, and how her life in South London meant she came into contact with pollution levels above legal limits. The U.K.’s Independent newspaper reported that the girl’s family “lived around 25 metres [80 feet] from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, South London. It was later revealed that air pollution from traffic on this road exceeded the annual legal limit constantly between 2006 and 2010.

Cars, trucks, and SUVs are certainly not the only culprits in deaths like Kissi-Debrah’s, but they have contributed plenty of pollution to the air. The companies involved have mostly gotten away with it because the auto industry spent its first century basically ignoring many of the external costs of its actions. For too long, the reasoning went: Exhaust gases go out of the tailpipe and then . . . they are forgotten by most drivers. But forgetting does not mean they disappear.

Cambridge is good to go with this on gasoline pumps by the end of the month. 1st government warning on climate effects to consumers in the the world! Let’s get ‘er done. #WarmingLabels

— Beyond The Pump (@BeyondPump) December 13, 2020

In 2015, Duke University professor Drew Shindell wrote a paper called “The Social Cost of Atmospheric Release,” in which he calculated that, if you were to include all of the climate and air-quality damages caused by gasoline combustion, you’d have to add nearly $4 to the cost of each gallon of fuel. This fall, during testimony before the U.S. House Oversight Committee, he updated his numbers and methodology and said that it’s now more like an additional $6.50 per gallon. “That cost is already an emergency,” he wrote this week on Grist.

Completely and officially restructuring the way these communal costs are calculated will be a challenge, but a new strategy to change how people think about them has now been put into action. This week, Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first city in the nation to put labels on gas-station pumps that warn drivers about the adverse health effects. They read: “Warning: Burning Gasoline, Diesel, and Ethanol has major consequences on human health and the environment including contributions to climate change.” Similar labels haven’t stopped everyone from smoking, but at least most everyone now recognizes cigarettes are dangerous.

Putting warning stickers on gas pumps is not a new idea. Berkeley, California, discussed it back in 2014, and gas-station information stickers that grade a fuel’s impact on the environment are in use in Sweden. Adding warning labels was proposed and passed in Canada and implemented in Vancouver, B.C., in 2015, but the stickers that ended up being used on the pumps had a watered-down message about keeping tires properly inflated and a link to get more on climate change, thanks to the oil industry’s pushback.

The new labels in Massachusetts don’t suffer from the same wishy-washy message. They read: “Warning: Burning Gasoline, Diesel, and Ethanol has major consequences on human health and the environment including contributing to climate change.” And some activists in the U.K. have gone even further, placing thousands of warning labels on gas pumps without any official permission.

Activists just did what governments around the world have failed to do for years: they printed 20,000 climate change warning labels and put them on gas pumps all over the UK. According to the group of physicians: “harmful products need health warnings.”👏

— Rob Shirkey (@robshirkey) August 29, 2020