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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

International Ship Pollution

Air Date: Week of

Politicians, health scientists and community members in California have been pushing to clean up emissions from international cargo ships. In Los Angeles, the ships emit half of all the region's sulfur oxide, a source of smog and dangerous particles. Now, thanks to growing research on health effects, there are signs that even the international shipping industry may be feeling the pressure to make changes. Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: The Los Angeles Basin tends to trap air, and the California sun can turn exhaust and other emissions from the activities of 16 million people into choking clouds of smog. So air officials have cracked down on cars, trucks, tugboats, cranes and even trains. And now southern California clean air advocates are leading efforts to get national regulations to cap pollution from oceangoing freighters. They are demanding that the federal government take action now, rather than wait for international rules. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports from Los Angeles.

LOBET: When both United States senators and two California congresswomen introduced legislation to clean up cargo ship engines recently, port neighborhoods in California cheered. The issue of trade-related pollution was finally being heard at the federal level. When several had the chance to speak to Senator Barbara Boxer at an August recess field hearing, the public packed the room. Roy Wilson, a county official in badly-polluted Riverside County made a point deeply felt here: That it’s unacceptable for a region that cracks down on drivers, on factories, on paints and dry cleaners to have a major polluter sitting untouched in its ports.

WILSON: It is shocking to consider that just upwind of our region, maritime vessels operate enormous engines, some of them three stories high, without any emission controls to speak of. These vessels also burn some of the dirtiest fuel in the world, literally the bottom of the barrel left after the refining process.

LOBET: This heavy ship fuel often contains hundreds of times more sulfur than what is now allowed in regular diesel fuel. California recently forced ships to switch to clean fuel as they enter port, and is being sued for it. The EPA says it’s working through proper international channels, specifically the International Maritime Organization towards the same end. Nearly everyone, including the shipping industry, says such international rules are the best way to address the issue. But people here say the international rules are taking too long and federal government needs to fill the gap. Ed Avol, an expert in air pollution health effects at the University of Southern California says lung damage is occurring now.

AVOL: Our studies have shown that children that grow up in more polluted areas have slower growing lungs. And that after years of losing a percent or two of lung growth, children in more polluted communities have higher rates of clinically significant low lung function and a decreased ability to move air through their lungs, just because of the air that they breathe. And these observations are important, because we know that low lung function is a predictor of respiratory disease later in life, and even of early death.

LOBET: Emergency room physician John Miller said he’s calculated southern California pays 1.4 billion dollars a year in health care costs related to pollution from the ports of LA/Long Beach.

MILLER: Scientists have compared the level of our risk here to that of passive smoking. When you apply that risk to millions of people, the results are bad.

LOBET: But it’s the deaths and near misses that he says really get him.

MILLER: Recently on a routine busy night in the ER we got a sudden call from the paramedics. They were bringing in a 14-year-old boy in full cardio-pulmonary arrest due to an asthma attack. We got as prepared as we could in 120 seconds and soon we were in the hand-to-hand struggle with death and destruction that we do fight. This child survived …despite the severity of his condition, but in many cases the person does not survive.

LOBET: Dr. Miller also told of a woman who came in believing she was having a heart attack, but died not long after of lung cancer.

MILLER: In my opinion, she died from air pollution.

LOBET: The ports, with their massive trade with Asia, are the LA Basin’s largest single polluters and container cargo is supposed to double or even triple again by 2025. The city of Long Beach is also home to the port complex. Bob Foster is mayor of Long Beach.

FOSTER: We are subsidizing inexpensive goods movement with the health of our citizens and that is simply intolerable. We can no longer afford to have kids in Long Beach contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.

LOBET: Bills to dramatically reduce the sulfur content of marine fuels have been introduced in the House and the Senate, but it could be tough for lawmakers to irritate the ports, who’ve traditionally been important sources of income and employment in coastal cities.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

[MUSIC: Incognito “Jacob’s Ladder” from ‘100 Degrees and Rising’ (Jazz Heritage Inc. – 1996)]



Research On Children's Exposure

Local Leaders Fed Up With Port Pollution

Ports Going Green

Pacific Maritime Association of Shippers

Communities for a Safe Environment


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