Study Links Diesel Fumes to Illnesses

Times Staff Writer

Air pollutants generated by California’s cargo industry will result in about 750 premature deaths this year and tens of billions of dollars in related healthcare costs over the next 15 years, a new study concludes.

Diesel-burning ships, trains and trucks tied to the state’s explosive international trade industry, concentrated mostly around major seaports such as the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, are largely responsible for the pollution problem, according to the study by the state Air Resources Board staff.

Healthcare costs this year alone linked to transportation emissions are estimated at $6.3 billion and could total $70 billion by 2020.


“Californians who live near ports, rail yards and along high-traffic corridors are subsidizing the goods-movement sector with their health,” the study warns.

The report is the first of its kind to document and assess the illnesses linked to freight movement in California. It also proposes a wide-ranging $3-billion to $6-billion pollution-reduction plan through 2020, including requiring diesel-electric hybrid engines and cleaner-burning fuels. New policies would also be needed to halt emissions growth.

The study sets four specific goals:

* Reduce cargo-related pollution levels to 2001 levels by 2010.

* Continue to roll back pollution levels so they meet state standards.

* Slash diesel-related health risks 85% by 2020.

* Ensure that adequate pollution cuts occur in specific communities affected by pollution.

The study is part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign to boost the state’s cargo industry by rebuilding aging roads and other infrastructure. Schwarzenegger has said his proposed public works program could be financed with a $50-billion bond sale.


Local business leaders have expressed concern that the pollution problem could stymie growth in a region increasingly dependent on international trade, primarily from China and other Asian countries.

Wally Baker, a senior vice president at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., said companies that ship goods should help find a solution.

“Retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers have to believe that solving this problem is their responsibility,” Baker said. “They can demand that their vendors get in a room and figure this out. They haven’t, and that’s wrong.”

Industry and environmental representatives had mixed reactions to the report, with some wondering how the state could achieve the pollution curbs needed to protect human health.

Particulate matter, primarily from diesel engines, and pollutants that form ozone in the atmosphere are key pollutants associated with premature death, cancer risk, increased risk of heart disease, and asthma and other respiratory illnesses, according to the report.

It blames 2005 cargo-related pollution for a list of health problems this year: 290 hospital admissions, 18,000 asthma attacks, 160,000 lost days of work, 1.1 million days of restricted activities and 350,000 school absences.

The rate of premature deaths is expected to rise to 920 a year in 2025 unless pollution is reduced, the report warns.

The air board staff estimates that about 9,000 people die prematurely in the state each year from exposure to particulate matter and ozone.

The study’s findings are based on medical records as well as computer predictions of growth in pollution and population, said air board spokesman Jerry Martin.

The pollution is most pronounced near the state’s major ports and along rail lines and freeways leading inland.

“The further away you are from the sources, the less impact,” Martin said. As in earlier reports, the new study found that the worst polluters are the oceangoing ships that, in 2001, produced eight tons of particulate matter and 94 tons of nitrous oxide statewide each day.

Ship pollution is largely unregulated, and nitrous oxides alone are expected to grow over the next 15 years to 223 tons of daily emissions, the report states. By comparison, trucks produced 129 tons of nitrous oxides each day in the state in 2001, and railroad locomotives produced 77 tons.

In the last two years, the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland have launched programs to reduce air pollution. New federal, state and regional efforts are expected to result in cleaner truck and rail operations.

But industry and government experts have cautioned against a piecemeal approach to California’s pollution problems, warning that tangled regulations and conflicting standards could discourage companies from investing in cleaner engines and other technology.

A spokesman for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., which represents West Coast shippers, terminal operators and other maritime interests, said Friday that the group recognizes the importance of improving air quality.

“This is our No. 1 priority right now, to figure out how to do that effectively and as quickly as practical,” said Tupper Hull.

But he also expressed concern about how the state board staff tallied air pollution levels in the study, saying it used a 2001 baseline that did not take into account some major industry measures to clean the air.

Public hearings on the proposed steps to reduce pollution will be held throughout California in early 2006.