Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 8 July 2012
Sometimes well-meaning yet ill-informed environmentalists can be their own worst enemy. By barking up the wrong tree, they distort public sentiments and even affect policy responses.
Take air pollution in Sri Lanka, for example. For decades, the greens have vilified factories as the principal source. In reality, over 60% of outdoor air pollution is now caused by vehicle emissions.
Over a decade ago, when I first wrote about diesel fumes being potentially cancer-causing, some greens urged me not to take on ‘the poor man’s fuel’. On a similar reasoning, successive governments have subsidised diesel prices to the tune of billions.
It’s time to rethink. In early June 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that diesel engine fumes can certainly cause cancer, especially lung cancer, in humans.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of WHO, has just reclassified diesel exhaust to its Group 1 list of substances that have definite links to cancer – thus changing its status to “carcinogen”.
This is a significant ‘upgrade’ for diesel fumes: they are now in the same class of deadly cancer-causers as asbestos, arsenic and tobacco.
And because it’s airborne, we can’t run away or hide from it.
In its media release IARC-WHO said that their decision is unanimous and based on compelling scientific evidence. Dr Christopher Wild, director of IARC, says this latest conclusion “sends a strong signal that public health action is warranted”.
He adds: “This emphasis is needed globally, including among the more vulnerable populations in developing countries where new technology and protective measures may otherwise take many years to be warranted.”
This latest finding should bring into sharper focus what enlightened researchers and activists call ‘deadly dieselisation’ of our transport. Diesel vehicle numbers on South Asian roads have been increasing faster than petrol ones – partly due to diesel subsidies.
“Evidence on diesel’s toxicity has been mounting over the past 20 years, which has already compelled stringent regulatory action on diesel quality and emissions standards in other regions of the world,” notes Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
The cancer-causing potential of diesel particulates and emissions is several times higher than some of the worst known air toxics, CSE noted in a statement issued two days after WHO’s announcement.
CSE has worked on air quality issues for nearly 25 years, and been an effective campaigner for citizens’ right to cleaner air in India. It has long underlined the serious health concerns over increased use of poor quality diesel with high levels sulphur. A diesel car can emit seven times more air toxics than petrol cars.
This is worrying because diesel vehicle fleets are expanding “at a maniacal pace” across South Asia, as CSE noted in a briefing paper on air pollution and public health in South Asian cities issued in April 2011. (see: http://tiny.cc/CMBMob)
In Sri Lanka, diesel vehicles made up 45% of the total fleet by end 2010. They contribute a disproportionately higher pollution load from the transport sector — nearly all (96%) sulphur dioxide emissions and most (89%) of tiny particulate matter known as PM10. The latter are deadly little devils that can penetrate deep inside the alveoli – the tiny, balloon-like cavities in our lungs where oxygen exchange happens.
I asked Professor Oliver Ileperuma of the University of Peradeniya, who has been studying air quality in Sri Lanka for many years, for reactions to the latest WHO classification. He likened this to when tobacco smoking moved from the probable “smoking may cause cancer” to the definitive “smoking causes cancer”.
The situation in Sri Lanka is of particular concern. “Our diesel is inferior in quality with a higher percentage of high end hydrocarbons. This is because the refinery wants to get a higher throughput (higher yield of diesel).”
The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) is talking about moving to the emission standard known as Euro III, but since we do not use naphtha in the petrochemical industry, some hydrocarbons which should be in naphtha end up in diesel, he says.
He adds: “This is the reason why there is a lot of smoke when our diesel is used even in new diesel vehicles. Longer hydrocarbon chains are difficult to burn and we get a lot of soot.”
Cancer in your face?
Diesel-burning SUVs, cars and three-wheelers are not the only source of diesel fumes. WHO points out that many trains, ships and electricity generators also run on diesel.
But there are special concerns over diesel vehicles as they release emissions within the breathing zone of people, says CSE’s Roychowdhury. “In a city like Delhi, more than 55% of its 17 million people live within 500 metres of major roads and are directly affected by traffic emissions.”
Petrol exhausts are not entirely clean either. But diesel fumes contain far more PM10 than petrol fumes. CSE says that Euro III diesel cars that are sold across India emit 7.5 times more toxic particulate matter and 3 to 5 times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than comparable petrol cars.
“The South Asian region needs to fast-track its transition to meeting Euro V and VI emissions standards. Sri Lanka will need to be on schedule to meet the Euro IV standards in 2012 and then quickly move to Euro V/VI. India must move quickly to Euro VI as well,” Roychowdhury said at the Colombo briefing last year.
With the WHO’s latest classification, diesel fumes can no longer be seen as a mere air pollution or aesthetic problem. Its rising public health costs need a serious and urgent policy response.
Dr Rohan Samarajiva, infrastructure specialist and policy analyst, says Sri Lanka must urgently review its diesel subsidies.
“It is because of these subsidies that the number of diesel-powered vehicles has increased on our roads, including the diesel-powered SUVs favored by the political class,” he says in his LBO column.
He draws attention to recently introduced diesel three-wheelers that “not only generates noxious fumes but increases the exposure of the driver and passengers by positioning them directly in line with exhaust pipes”.
At least one brand currently advertises in newspapers extolling its virtue of cheaper running cost when compared to petrol.
The short and long term public health costs of air pollution are only just beginning to be quantified. But governments now have sufficient and unambiguous evidence to act.
If long-term public health benefits are beyond the horizon of our crisis-ridden policy makers, at least the short-term earnings should interest them.
CSE points out how governments in South Asia earn much less from the excise tax on diesel used by cars, compared to petrol. While governments have to bear a higher burden of subsidy each year with more diesel vehicles on our roads, diesel car owners will be laughing their way to the car showrooms. “This perverse subsidy to the rich comes at an enormous cost to public health,” says Roychowdhury.
In China, taxes do not differentiate between petrol and diesel, while in other countries like Denmark, diesel cars are taxed higher to offset the lower prices of diesel fuel.
Rationalising long-entrenched diesel subsidies is not for the faint-hearted. But other measures are less contentious.
For a start, says Prof Ileperuma, all public (CTB) buses and lorries should be required to take the annual emission control tests from which they are currently exempt. Phasing out older vehicles and insisting on fool-proof fitness certification for all heavy vehicles is also needed.
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