NEW YORK — Ahh, smell that New York City air. No, seriously, go ahead.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday said the city's air quality has hit its highest levels in 50 years, a development officials say has led to fewer deaths and hospitalizations.
"New York has the cleanest air now of any major American city," Bloomberg said at a news conference as part of a week of climate-related events.
Bloomberg said the level of sulfur dioxide in the air has gone down by 69 percent since 2008. The level of soot pollution has gone down by 23 percent since 2007. The data comes from the city's Community Air Survey, which measured street level air pollution at 150 locations from 2008 to 2010 and at 100 sites from 2010 to 2013.
Officials estimate the decrease in pollution has annually prevented 800 deaths and 2,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations in the city of 8 million people. Sulfur dioxide exacerbates asthma, and soot pollution impacts on heart disease and lung disease.
Aside from smoking bans, "this better air quality prevents more deaths than any other change that's happened in New York City in the last decade," said Dr. Thomas Farley, the city's health commissioner.
Officials said the drops in pollution came from a combination of factors, including buildings burning lower-pollution heating oils or switching over to cleaner burning natural gas. Bloomberg said more of the city's pollution came from buildings and their fuel use, as opposed to vehicular pollution.
New York's pollution levels coming down "is extremely critical for public health," said Judith Zelikoff, professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at New York University School of Medicine.
"We know that air pollution can have many adverse health outcomes," she said, not only leading to chronic illness and death but reducing the overall quality of life for people who become limited in their time outside because of the impact on their breathing.
She said the issue of air cleanliness was becoming more important to the public.
"People are taking note if they live in a clean air environment," she said. "People have become more and more aware of the health implications and the health effects."