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US: Study says diesel emissions raise cancer risk

by Elizabeth Fernandez, Chronicle Staff WriterThe San Francisco Chronicle
March 20th, 2008

(03-19) 19:04 PDT OAKLAND -- Diesel emissions from trucks, machinery and other sources elevate the risk of premature death, cancer, asthma and other chronic diseases for more than 3 million people living in West Oakland and the surrounding region, according to the most detailed study yet on the issue.

The analysis by the California Air Resources Board, released Wednesday night, shows that the greatest health dangers related to toxic air emissions stems from diesel trucks traversing the freeways and other roadways around West Oakland and the Port of Oakland.

The two-year public health inquiry covered a large swath of the Bay Area - an area of 3,800 square miles that is home to 3.1 million people. The residents had an elevated risk of cancer - nearly 1,200 additional cancers per million people due to long-term exposure to diesel particulate matter than people living elsewhere, the study reported in preliminary findings.

The study also found other considerable health problems resulting from exposure to port-related diesel pollution: 18 potential premature deaths annually occurring among people 30 and older, 290 asthma attacks, 2,600 days of work lost and 15,000 "minor restricted activity episodes."

Exposure to diesel particulate matter is a hazard especially for children and elders. The air board has estimated that the toxins contributed to some 160 premature deaths in the Bay Area three years ago.

"We no longer live in the Industrial Age. People should not be exposed to known toxins in their own homes," said Dr. Anthony Iton, director of the Alameda County Public Health Department.

He said that the report, which he had not yet read, confirms earlier health findings.

"We have extensive data on the disproportionate burden of disease in West Oakland," he said. "We hope that this health risk assessment will be helpful in quantifying the responsibility of the port to the adverse health outcomes in West Oakland."

The study concentrated on three sources of the toxic air contaminant: the Port of Oakland, the Union Pacific Railroad near the port, and freeway truck traffic and nonport-related marine vessel traffic in and around West Oakland in general. Diesel trucks accounted for 70 percent of the elevated health risks - amounting to 850 potential cancer cases per million above the expected rate of cancer in the general population. Of the remainder, 15 percent of the total risk came from port operations - 200 excess cancer cases - and 5 percent came from Union Pacific rail-yard emissions - 40 additional cancer cases. The remainder came from a variety of other sources including Amtrak and construction businesses in the area.

Similar studies have been conducted to assess health risks associated with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, but this one included a much wider region than the others. "It was a huge undertaking," said Patricia Rey, a spokeswoman for the air board.

Taking a novel approach to measure marine vessel emissions, the large study utilized data from 33 onshore and offshore weather stations to generate a regional wind field.

"This health risk assessment will provide the community the focus and momentum needed to mobilize and combat air pollution," said Mary Nichols, chairman of the air board. "We look forward to working with community activists to converge on the main pollution culprits, such as trucks motoring on nearby freeways, affecting a growing and vibrant West Oakland."

This week Port of Oakland commissioners began reviewing a slate of goals designed to reduce diesel emissions by 85 percent over the next dozen years.

The port had come under heavy criticism in recent years for the dirty emissions of trucks doing business with it. In 2005, county public health officials compiled state data revealing that West Oakland children ages 5 and under visited the emergency room for asthma at a rate nearly three times higher than children in Alameda County overall. Additionally, a study of death certificates dating to the 1960s showed that residents of West Oakland lived 10 years fewer than people living in the Oakland hills.

The Air Resources Board is a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency. The study was conducted in cooperation with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Port of Oakland and Union Pacific Railroad.

E-mail Elizabeth Fernandez at

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