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Scientists Look at Health Effects of Ship Emissions

Scientists over the last two decades have become familiar with the negative health impacts of particulate matter, minute yet harmful particles in our air that are emitted from sources such as coal-fired power plants and cars and trucks.

But there’s another source that contributes to this harmful air pollution, one that scientists estimate is causing thousands of deaths each year worldwide: oceangoing ships.

University of Delaware and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) scientists estimate that shipping-related particulate matter emissions are responsible for approximately 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths annually, with impacts concentrated in coastal regions along major trade routes.

The results, scheduled to appear in the Dec. 15, 2007, issue of Environmental Science & Technology, mark the first time that researchers have estimated these effects globally. Previous studies have focused only on Europe and the western United States.

“We demonstrate that this is a multicontinental impact. You can’t isolate the impacts to only one region,” said James Corbett, associate professor of marine policy and one of the study’s two lead authors. “With more than half the world’s population living in coastal regions and freight growth outpacing other sectors, all modes of goods movement will need to meet stricter control targets.”

Corbett and James Winebrake, professor of public policy at RIT who co-led the study, determined that the areas most affected by particulate emissions are East Asia, South Asia and Europe, where large populations and high levels of shipping-related particulate matter coincide.

The study analyzed ship emissions’ health impact, estimating global and regional mortalities by integrating global ship inventories, atmospheric models, and health impacts formulas. Corbett and Winebrake estimate that under current regulation, and given an expected growth in shipping activity, annual mortalities caused by ship-to-air emissions could increase 40 percent by 2012.

“There are other health impacts besides mortality that are exacerbated by these pollutants, such as respiratory illnesses like asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis,” Winebrake said. “Finding ways to reduce or eliminate these negative impacts will be an important and necessary task for policymakers.”

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