November 8, 2007

Ship pollution kills!

Pollution from smokestacks of ocean ships kills up to 60,000 people a year around the world, says a study released today.

The estimated toll of premature deaths in North America, most on the West Coast, is 9,000, says the study, published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Without a clean up, the global total is expected to hit 84,000 within five years, the study says.

The damage comes from the sulphur-laden Bunker C fuel that powers the growing number of ships conducting global trade.

The sludgy fuel is “basically the dregs of the oil refining process,” and contains nearly 2,000 times as much sulphur as the diesel fuel burned in trucks in North America and Europe, says David Marshall, of the Clean Air Task Force, one of the groups that commissioned the study.

The study’s authors - researchers from four universities in the United States and Germany - conclude the emissions cause deadly heart and respiratory ailments, including lung cancer, mainly in people who live along coasts near busy shipping lanes. Hardest hit are Europe and Asia.

The main culprits are the sulphur, along with nitrates and particles.

“The study is the first to estimate the impacts of ship emissions on a global scale in human health terms,” said one of the researchers, James Corbett, at the University of Delaware.

The annual number of premature deaths from all outdoor air pollution is estimated to be about 800,000, the study notes.

The researchers estimated the marine pollution toll by first measuring the emissions from the more than 55,000 ships that ply the oceans, then, figuring out how much they add to the total pollution in the atmosphere. Finally, they calculate the expected number of deaths from that increase in pollution.

The technique is similar to the one employed by Toronto Public Health to estimate that air pollution and smog lead to 1,700 premature deaths in the city each year.

Ship engines are massive - equivalent to a municipal power plant, or thousands of cars and trucks, Marshall said in an interview. But while power plants face restrictions on the types of fuel they can use, and many must install scrubbers or other polluting-reducing devices, “international shipping is completely unregulated.

“It has gotten away Scot-free to this point, partly due to the feeling that since the emissions are out of sight they can’t harm anyone.”

The pollution is not that far from view, the study notes: 70 per cent of emissions occur within 400 kilometres of land.

The solution is simple, although expensive, Marshall said: Ships, too, should be required to burn low-sulphur fuel and install scrubbing devices. Emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide from new and existing ships must be cut by as much as 90 per cent, no later than 2015, the study states.

The American Petroleum Institute estimates it would cost $126 billion (U.S.) between now and 2020 to convert refineries around the world to produce cleaner fuels for marine engines. But the cost of health care and lost income and productivity from pollution damage is much higher, Marshall said.

At the International Marine Organization, seagoing nations have been negotiating for the past 15 years on new air pollution standards, Marshall said. To date, the talks have only produced regulations that amount to business as usual.

Tougher regulations are imposed in a few places, including Scandinavia and California, which now requires clean fuel in ships that enter its waters.

Improvements can’t wait, because ocean shipping is increasing by four per cent a year globally and, thanks to rapidly growing trade with Asia, by six per cent on the West Coast, Marshall said.

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