Diesel Exhaust Shortens 20,000 American Lives a Year

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - Diesel fumes cut short the lives of more than 20,000 Americans each year, according to a report released Tuesday by environmentalists. This figure includes almost 3,000 early deaths from lung cancer.

The study, based on analysis by a consulting firm used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies, finds the majority of these deaths could be avoided by applying currently available control technologies.

"This is a significant risk and threat to public health but it is one for which we have a solution," said Conrad Schneider, Clean Air Task Force's advocacy director and co-author of the report. "We can reduce that risk by 90 percent."

The Boston-based environmental group commissioned the analysis for the study from Abt Associates, one of the largest government and business research and consulting firms in the world.

Diesel engines - widely used in buses, trucks, agricultural and construction equipment - spew out particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. trucks

Clean air advocates caution that new diesel rules do not cover existing engines, some of which will run for another 30 years. (Photo courtesy EPA)
These fumes contribute to respiratory illness and heart ailments.

The report finds diesel exhaust poses a cancer risk that, on a national basis, is 350 times higher than the EPA's acceptable risk level and 7.5 times greater than the combined total cancer risk from all other air toxics.

The risk of lung cancer from diesel exhaust for people living in urban areas is three times that for those living in rural areas, according to report, which ranks New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago as the three metropolitan areas with the highest number of premature deaths from diesel fumes.

The study finds diesel pollution causes some 27,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 410,000 cases of asthma each year - and total health damages from diesel exhaust will total some $139 billion by 2010.

It took into account the recent EPA diesel pollution reduction regulations, which will require dramatic reductions in emissions from new diesel vehicles starting in 2007.

The rules lower the sulfur content of diesel fuel some 99 percent and forces new engines to meet much stricter pollution standards.

But the regulations do not cover existing diesel engines and only call for voluntary retrofit programs.

The report says this means some 13 million diesel engines currently in use will not be required to cut pollution - it estimates the lifespan of a typical diesel engine is 30 years.

"Those are terrific rules," Schneider said. "But the question is what can be done about the legacy of dirty diesels still on the road today?"

The EPA regulations aim to cut total diesel emissions 90 percent by 2030, but the Clean Air Task Force says that goal can be met years earlier.

The organization recommends faster retrofitting, cleaner fuel strategies and early retirement of engines that cannot be cleaned. bulldozer

Retrofits are not an option for some diesel-powered equipment. (Photo courtesy greenecon.org)

The study also calls on Congress to appropriate money to retrofit government vehicle fleets including school and transit buses

A retrofit for a typical transit bus costs some $5,000 to $7,000, according to the study.

"There is a mixture of different solutions to the problem," said Schneider, who touted major health benefits of aggressive action.

Reducing diesel fine particle emissions 50 percent by 2010, 75 percent by 2015, and 85 percent by 2020 would save nearly 100,000 lives between now and 2030, according to the study.

A diesel industry representative did not challenge the health findings of the report but said it does not fairly reflect the current state of diesel technology.

"We have some questions about how the study was put together," said Allen Schaeffer, president of The Diesel Technology Forum, which represents manufacturers of diesel engines, fuel and emissions control systems.

The study relies on EPA data on diesel engines from 1999 - Schneider said this is the "latest and best inventory data" the agency has - and uses the same methodology used by the EPA's Science Advisory Board.

Schaeffer said his organization was still reviewing the report but "fundamentally and absolutely disagrees" that 1999 data is the most accurate available.

Retrofits are an option for some road vehicles, Schaeffer said, and the industry has aided the retrofit of some 160,000 diesel engines.

But retrofitting the nation's entire diesel fleet "can't be done and shouldn't be done," he told ENS. "It is time for people to invest in new technology."

Information on the report can be found here.