Rich Kassel, Consultant on clean fuels and vehicles issues, New York City
In a study being published this weekend in The Lancet, the World Health Organization reports that 3.2 million people die prematurely every year from cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses that are attributable to particulate air pollution. These premature deaths translate into 74 million lost years of healthy life, worldwide. For the first time, outdoor air pollution ranks as one of the top ten causes of premature deaths worldwide.
In the new study, the WHO reported that two-thirds of these deaths are occurring in Asia, where cities regularly have particulate air pollution levels that dwarf the WHO’s recommended guideline of 20 micrograms/cubic meter, as the chart of particulate levels in selected Asian cities (compared to my hometown of NYC) below shows.
Drilling down into the data, the Health Effects Institute reported that particulates are the fourth leading cause of premature mortality and health impacts in East Asia (China and North Korea) and the sixth leading cause in South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), where it contributed to 1.2 million and 712,000 deaths in 2010, respectively.
Source: Health Effects Institute.
The new study uses 2010 data, and updates a prior study that used 2004 data and concluded that urban air pollution was causing 1.3 million premature deaths annually at that time. Some of the increase is certainly due to better monitoring and improved methodologies. However, much of the increase is due to increased air pollution in cities that are becoming increasingly clogged with diesel and other vehicles that burn dirty, high-sulfur fuels and lack the types of effective pollution control technologies that we take for granted in the U.S. Diesel particulates are one of the major sources of urban particulates—and prior research suggests that they are responsible for more than half of the premature mortality and health impacts seen in the world’s large cities.
I just returned from Hong Kong, where I spent a week with NRDC colleagues David Pettit and Barbara Finamore. Together, we explored new opportunities to work with local partners on projects to reduce diesel and other pollution from the ports and ships that add so much to the air pollution of Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta.
Working on port pollution issues in Asia makes a lot of sense. Asia is home to 15 of the world’s 20 busiest ports, as the following chart of the world's largest ports shows.
From our successful work to clean up diesel truck, yard equipment, rail, and ship emissions at the ports of Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Oakland and other U.S. ports, we know that particulate pollution from diesel trucks and dirty ships can be a solvable problem. Low-sulfur fuels, effective particulate filters, and smart operational changes can reduce emissions quickly and cost-effectively.
Looking ahead, we hope to adapt this work to help create projects that will reduce air pollution in the Hong Kong/Pearl River Delta region, and that will serve as models for similar projects in other polluted port cities in Asia and around the world.
Given the new data from the WHO, this work could not be more timely.
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