Diesel Fumes From Ports Raising Cancer Risk in Region, Study Says

Times Staff Writer

Diesel fumes from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are elevating the risk of cancer not only adjacent to the ports but many miles inland, a new study shows.

It is the first state study that shows that air pollution from the ports is increasing cancer risk in the Los Angeles Basin, said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, which released a draft of the study Tuesday.

The study concludes that potential cancer risk from port-related diesel fumes exceeds 50 additional cases of cancer per million people for residents within 15 miles of the two ports.

Two million people live within the study area, which includes southern Los Angeles County and western Orange County.


Studies show that one in four Californians will get some form of cancer from all causes, including diet, lifestyle and environmental causes, amounting to a cancer risk of 250,000 in a million, regulators say.

“What we are saying is that on top of that, 100 [in the study area] are going to have cancer for no other reason than the diesel pollution from the ports,” Martin said. He said lung cancer is the primary risk from diesel fumes. Lung cancer is usually fatal.

The 53,000 people who live nearest the two seaports face a risk exceeding 500 in a million from port pollution alone, according to the study.

Under state law, fixed facilities such as refineries and dry cleaners must post warnings if the potential cancer risk exceeds 10 additional cases of cancer per million people. In the Los Angeles area, polluters must prepare detailed plans and slash emissions if the risk exceeds 25 cases per million.


The sources of much of the diesel exhaust, however, are not covered by those rules because ships, trains, trucks and cargo equipment are considered “mobile sources” that are regulated less stringently.

That distinction has handcuffed local and state regulators who are attempting to reduce port pollution.

Air experts call the latest study the most thorough to date of the potential health problems caused by pollution at the adjacent seaports, the two largest in the nation.

Earlier research had found that diesel fumes accounted for 71% of the cancer risk associated with air pollution in the Los Angeles region.


Other reports have looked at cancer risk from a variety of sources. But the state study is the first comprehensive look at the cancer risk of diesel fumes generated within the ports. The fumes are especially harmful to children and the elderly.

“I’m not aware of any other assessment on emissions and risks from the ports that have been done in so much detail,” said Jean Ospital, health effects officer at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air quality in the Los Angeles Basin.

One surprise in the study is that pollution from within the two ports extends so far inland, Ospital said.

The new study pays close attention to the particulate matter in diesel emissions, made up of soot as well as particles that can form from nitrogen oxides released from diesel engines. Such particles can exacerbate lung and cardiovascular disease and have been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.


“Diesel PM emissions from the ports result in elevated cancer risk levels over the entire 20-mile by 20-mile study area,” the study states. It determined that the Port of Los Angeles emitted 965 tons of diesel particulate matter in 2002, while the Port of Long Beach emitted 795 tons.

The health effects of diesel fumes from the two ports extend beyond cancer, the report states. It estimates that such pollution each year causes 29 premature deaths of people aged 30 and older, 750 asthma attacks, 6,600 lost workdays and 35,000 days of minor restricted activity.

Some activists say the study seriously underestimates the medical impact of port-related emissions because it fails to consider truck and train activity that extends beyond the ports’ boundaries. The study does not include such emission sources as the truck-clogged 710 Freeway and the sprawling rail yards of Los Angeles and Commerce.

Air Resources Board staff members Tuesday said several upcoming health assessments would look at other pollution sources outside the ports.


The study released Tuesday focused on pollution produced within the ports because the board will be reviewing proposed rules dealing with ships and cargo equipment in coming months. Both ports have launched programs to reduce emissions.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has named an all-new Board of Harbor Commissioners and vowed to make port air pollution a top priority.

The board is expected to set guidelines for curbing emissions at a meeting next Wednesday.

Many harbor-area residents are expected to protest a proposed Port of L.A. rail yard at a Thursday night meeting at Silverado Park in Long Beach, and activists throughout the region are challenging a proposed memorandum of understanding between the state board and two major railroads. It would require the railroads to conduct their own health-risk assessments for individual rail yards and advance the deadline for using low-sulfur diesel fuel.


Community groups say the proposed pact is too weak.

The two ports are expected to triple their activities by 2020, which could increase diesel emissions by 60% without stepped-up pollution controls, the study states.