During Ramadan, Muslims ideally sacrifice some of their own comfort while focusing on compassion, mercy and charitable giving to the hungry, thirsty, poor and disadvantaged. However, while one can fast from food and water for specific periods of time, our bodies cannot fast from air because clean air is the most life-giving force upon which we rely. In Islam, the breath is related to a person’s physical and spiritual life. Deep breathing can be very helpful in managing one’s physical, emotional, and psychological problems.

That’s why as we work for healthy food and clean water for our communities, we also need to demand clean air for all. This is especially true for our friends and family who live near busy highways, ports and distribution centers choked by toxic air pollution from the daily deluge of truck traffic. 

The air pollution that causes asthma and lung disease, which kills thousands every year, has many causes. However, toxic diesel exhaust from trucks is particularly dangerous, for it is also an egregious form of environmental injustice that overwhelmingly hurts low-income people and people of color. According to the EPA, over 70 million people across the U.S. live within 675 feet of major trucking routes and thus experience higher rates of exposure and health risks. Because those highways and warehouse distribution centers have historically been concentrated in or near low-income communities, people of color, children, and the poor disproportionately bear the brunt.

Wars are an additional challenge, for, as Jennifer Dathan has stated, “Explosive weapons can devastate a landscape. They can reduce buildings to toxic rubble and destroy long-cherished trees. They can contaminate the soil for decades and cause poisons to leach into once healthy rivers. They can decimate ecosystems and disturb the harmony of nature. They kill humans and animals without reflection and tip the world out of balance” (“The broken land: The environmental consequences of explosive weapon use,” July 3, 2020, reliefweb.int).

Culprit Trucks 

Diesel-burning trucks are also a climate disaster. Even though heavy-duty vehicles make up barely 5% of all vehicles on the road, they contribute more than 25% of greenhouse gas emissions within the transportation sector. This is already the largest contributor to carbon pollution in the U.S., not to mention a major source of other air pollutants like nitrogen oxides and deadly particulate matter. In Wisconsin, for example, transportation contributes to even higher emissions — over 30% of our state’s greenhouse gas emissions are from cars and trucks. In cities like Milwaukee, our communities are pushing for stricter emission standards, a transition to cleaner electric trucks and buses and a more robust and sustained support for public transit.

Wisconsin Green Muslims, a grassroots environmental justice group formed in 2005, connects faith, environmental justice, sustainability, and healing through education and service. They are working with partners like the Clean Air for the Long-Haul Cohort, a national coalition of environmental justice organizations working collectively to advance environmental justice by seeking emissions reductions in the power and transportation sectors. The Cohort creates and coordinates campaigns to amplify the voices and positions of overburdened communities in federal rulemaking; actively champions adopting and enforcing clean air and climate justice policies that reduce emissions of toxic air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; and protects the health of Black, Brown, Tribal, Indigenous, and low-income communities.

In addition to working on a new clean trucks rule that will make real pollution cuts to trucks on the road today, the EPA is creating incentives to shift new heavy-duty truck sales toward zero-emission models across the next decade. It is also investing in a robust expansion of roadside high-speed charging infrastructure for trucks. 

The public health benefits of an aggressive transition to electric freight are huge — fewer asthma attacks and hospital visits, not to mention less risk to children’s healthy development. The American Lung Association estimates that if truck fleets electrify by 2050, the cumulative benefits could include $735 billion in public health benefits thanks to cleaner air, 66,800 fewer deaths, 1.75 million fewer asthma attacks and 8.5 million fewer lost workdays (www.lung.org). 

Numbers Make Sense Too

The economics are also smart: After a few short years, electric trucks pay for themselves because maintenance costs are significantly lower and owners can bow out of paying for expensive diesel fuel. Electric truck purchasers now get up to $40,000 in tax rebates under the Inflation Reduction Act, and these trucks are becoming cheaper every year as battery prices decline, economies of scale improve, and the relevant technology matures. 

It also helps that when given a chance, drivers love the new electric trucks. They are quieter, don’t emit noxious fumes, give off less heat, have fewer vibrations and overall provide a much smoother driving experience. “I’m so used to the vibration of the sound, the noise, the exhaust, the fumes, the heat coming out of the bottom of the cab …and now it’s a whole totally different story. This change is going to benefit everybody,” one California driver recently shared, during his first test drive with an electric rig. 

Now the EPA can protect environmental justice communities overburdened by toxic diesel pollution and support the drivers, who spend up to 14 hours a day in their trucks, by crafting the strongest, science-backed standards possible to limit greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution from heavy-duty freight. The Biden administration must send a clear signal to manufacturers to invest in zero-emission electric models sooner to protect the health of highly impacted environmental justice communities everywhere. A faster transition to clean electric power on our roads is already here. We just need to keep it going. 

Moreover, the EPA must craft the strongest possible rules to safeguard environmental justice communities overburdened by toxic diesel pollution. We were disappointed to hear yet another delay in finalizing a critical climate and public health rule. We urge the Biden administration to rise above industry interests and prioritize alleviating the cumulative environmental and health burdens of transportation pollution that has plagued our communities for generations. The EPA must finalize strong standards that limit greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution from the heavy-duty vehicle sector to send a clear message to manufacturers for zero emission electric models, and, ultimately, ensure clean air and protect the health of overburdened environmental justice communities as soon as possible. 

By Huda Alkaff

Huda Alkaff is an ecologist, environmental educator and the founder and director of Wisconsin Green Muslims. This grassroots environmental justice group intends to educate Muslims and the public about Islam’s environmental justice teachings, apply them in daily life and contribute to collaborations and coalitions working toward a just, healthy, peaceful and sustainable future. https://wisconsingreenmuslims.org/