By Jenni Neahring

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A s we continue to struggle with high health care costs personally and politically, the need grows to implement preventive strategies to preserve health. Just as secondhand tobacco smoke was shown to increase death and disease, the public exposure to pollution from old, heavy-duty diesel engines is a proven cause of excess heart attacks, asthma attacks and missed work and school days. The Oregon Legislature has an opportunity in 2019 to make a clear impact on the health and well-being of our state by passing the Diesel Bill (HB 2007).

Diesel emissions from older trucks, buses and construction equipment contribute 82% of the diesel pollution in Oregon.

Decades of fits and starts have not led to retirement and replacement of these old vehicles at the hoped for or predicted rates.

Federal incentives since 2008 have only led to the retirement of 66 trucks and 69 construction engines. Oregon DEQ estimates 70,000 heavy-duty trucks, buses and construction engines could be replaced with cleaner vehicles. A single diesel truck from 1988 can emit as much nitric oxide as 50 trucks meeting the 2017 standards.

Why does diesel pollution matter? Diesel engines emit particles and gases that are toxic and create disease. The fine particulates from the engines get into the lungs, carrying cancer-causing toxins and are small enough to travel throughout the body so they end up in the heart, brain and placenta. These particulates affect unborn babies when moms are exposed to diesel exhaust, and young children are especially vulnerable.

Heavy-duty vehicles are the largest transportation source of smog from nitric oxide. They release toxins including benzene and acetaldehyde into the air. Black carbon particles have an immediate effect on the local climate by effecting the clouds and causing faster snow and ice melt.

On a more personal level, children traveling to schools on old diesel buses have significantly increased missed days of school whether they have underlying health issues or not. They also have an estimated additional rate of cancer deaths ranging 23 to 46 per million children — this is from research published in 2002.

The estimated annual health impact from diesel in Oregon includes 145 heart attacks and 25,910 lost work days. Lung cancer, cognitive impairment, male infertility and impaired lung growth in children have been connected to diesel exhaust.

Efforts to date have not been enough to protect our most vulnerable — infants, children and pregnant women — from lifetime harm resulting from early exposure to diesel pollution. We have a chance with this legislation to accelerate the slow rate of replacement of old diesel engines with consequences to Oregon’s youngest citizens.

The VW settlement funds gave Oregon $72.9 million and an opportunity to invest in effective diesel cleanup with firm deadlines to retire/renew our diesel fleet, using funds to ease the transition to newer engines with lower maintenance and downtime.

Oregon has fallen behind California and Washington in these efforts and achieved only 2% of necessary changes to reach our benchmarks.

This year, we need to do more to clean our air and protect our children whose lungs are growing, sparing them a preventable cause of lifetime health impact. Every dollar invested in clean engines is expected to return $12 in health benefits.

We must invest in keeping Oregonians healthy, not just spend more on treating the illnesses we did not prevent.

Here is our chance to capture one of those opportunities to move upstream and create a better, healthier Oregon.

— Jenni Neahring, is a doctor and lives in Bend.