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Fifty Million To One

David Pettit

Posted April 11, 2009 in Curbing Pollution

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A recent article in the Guardian reports that a large container ship that operates 280 days per year emits 50 million times as much SOx pollution as a car that is driven 15,000 kilometers or 9,300 miles per year.  Yes, that's right:  50,000,000 times as much.  Doing the math, the article goes on to say that just 15 of the biggest container ships "may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760 [million] cars."  And there are roughly 90,000 ocean-going cargo ships. 

SOx, which is shorthand for the family of sulfur oxide gases, is a combustion byproduct of diesel fuel (among other sources).  Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is in the SOx family and is a precursor of particulate matter in the atmosphere.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SO2 by itself can cause respiratory illness and aggravate heart disease.  Inhalation of sulfate particles can cause increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.  SO2 can also contribute to acid rain and, says EPA, "accelerates the decay of building materials and paints, including irreplaceable monuments, statues, and sculptures that are part of our nation's cultural heritage."  Nasty stuff. 

As though that were not bad enough, the BBC reported this week on a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that found that inhalation of fine particulate matter can lead to low birth weight babies.  That study looked at emissions of particulates from highways, but the particulate matter that affected the unborn children can also come from ship emissions.  Your lungs don't know the difference. 

And while we're on the topic of the BBC report, it's interesting that the data used there came from EPA monitoring stations that are, in general, not near the freeways where the biggest problems are.  I blogged about this issue here, and our press release on the lawsuit that NRDC filed to fix this problem is here.  Well, a new study has just come out in the journal Atmospheric Environment (you have to go to Science Direct to buy it) that shows just how important it is to have air pollution monitors near freeways, and not a dozen kilometers or more away as EPA now permits.  The authors, who did field work near the L.A. ports, conclude that:  "[P]persons living or working near and downwind of busy roadways can have several-fold higher exposures to diesel vehicle-related pollution than would be predicted by ambient measurements in non-impacted locations." 

These problems are fixable with technology that exists today.  Low-sulfur fuel for ships is available now that is 35 times cleaner than the dirty (but cheaper) bunker fuel that ships typically burn.  If the EPA gets its way, use of that fuel will be mandatory within 200 miles of the U.S. coast by 2015; see my colleague Rich Kassel's post on this here.  In fact, this cleaner fuel is currently being offered free to ships docking at the L.A. ports, see my blog post on that program. Moving pollution monitors near freeways is a no-brainer, except that EPA doesn't want to do it.  Reducing diesel pollution on our freeways is tougher, but there are trucks available right now that are 60 times cleaner than pre-1989 diesels.  Impressive work is going on right now in Los Angeles on a fleet of electric port drayage trucks.  And although the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads will tell you that electric powered locomotives are infeasible to carry freight, they exist in Europe, Australia and China -- and indeed, the Alameda Corridor that links the L.A. ports to a huge local railyard was built with the idea that it could, one day, be electrified.  

Leverage of 50 million to 1 can work both ways.  Cleaning up just one big container ship can give us tremendous bang for the buck.  Putting cleaner diesels and electric trucks and trains on the streets and rails near our busy ports is also hugely cost-effective in terms of public health.  Let's get this done.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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