Diesel Pollution Poses Growing Health Threat

Pollution from diesel engines is expected to shorten the lives of 21,000 Americans by the year 2010, according to a new report.

In addition to 3,000 deaths from lung cancer alone, diesel soot also contributes to an estimated 15,000 hospital admissions, 27,000 nonfatal heart attacks, and more than 400,000 asthma attacks each year, concludes the report, published by the Clean Air Task Force.

“This makes it one of the most significant public health risks out there,” says Conrad Schneider, the group’s advocacy director and a co-author of the report.

The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to begin enforcing diesel rules in 2007 that will force new trucks, buses, farm equipment, and heavy machinery to use particle filters and cleaner fuel technology. The rules are designed to cut total diesel emissions by 90% over the next several years.

But the lag time leaves a “gap” where existing vehicles and equipment will keep on spewing concentrated diesel fumes for up to 30 years, the time it takes the average diesel engine to wear out, Schneider says.

The group wants the federal government to increase spending to fit diesel filters on public vehicles like garbage trucks and millions of transit and school buses. They also are calling on cities and state legislatures to identify areas where the highest concentrations of diesel particulates circulate in the air.

Twenty-one states already require the use of reduced-sulfur diesel fuel.

“The vast majority of the deaths due to dirty diesels could be avoided by an aggressive program over the next 15 years to require cleanup,” the report states.

More aggressive moves designed to cut total diesel emissions 85 percent by 2020 could save up to 100,000 lives, according to Schneider.

Diesel Deaths and Cities

The report lists the top 50 cities, in order of deaths per 100,000 adults. (For the complete list, see below.)

City/Deaths per 100,000 Adults:

1. Beaumont, Texas/ 29

2. Baton Rouge, La./ 27

3. New York/ 25

4. Philadelphia/ 22

5. Trenton, N.J./ 20

6. Baltimore, Md./ 19

7. Huntington, W.Va./ 18

8. New Orleans/ 17

9. Pittsburgh, Pa./ 15

10. Cincinnati/ 15

The report based its estimates on the same models used by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the health impact of pollutants, the authors say.

But a diesel industry representative criticizes the report, noting that the health estimates in it use 1999 data that do not accurately reflect lower particulate levels seen today.

“They’re overstating the risk. They’re using data that is six years old in this case,” says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. Overall diesel emissions dropped 37 percent between 1990 and 2000.

The Clinton administration set low-diesel standards for trucks and buses, followed by restrictions for farm and construction equipment put in place by the EPA under the Bush administration.

Frank O’Donnell, director of the group Clean Air Watch, says environmental lobbyists will be looking toward an energy bill expected soon in Congress for increased spending on filters for existing diesel engines. Schaeffer says his industry supports the spending for public vehicles.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: “Diesel and Health in American: The Lingering Threat”, Clean Air Task Force, Feb. 22, 2005. Conrad Schneider, advocacy director, Clean Air Task Force. Allen Schaeffer, executive director, Diesel Technology Forum. Frank O’Donnell, director, Clean Air Watch.