Study finds cleaner ship fuels will reduce childhood asthma by 3.6 percent globally

February 6, 2018 by Karen B. Roberts, University of Delaware
Oil tanker near Delaware City, DE. Credit: University of Delaware

Marine shipping fuels will get a whole lot cleaner in 2020 when a regulation by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires fuels to contain 80-86 percent less sulphur.

This is the most significant improvement in global standards for the shipping industry in 100 years, intended to achieve significant on a global scale.

Now, a new study in Nature Communications quantifies these benefits and finds cleaner shipping fuels will result in a 3.6 percent reduction of globally.

The study was led by University of Delaware's James Corbett, and included an international team of researchers from the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York and Energy and Environmental Research Associates.

The team studied the impacts of sulphur emitted by using current marine fuels, which produce air pollution particles that are small enough to be breathed deeply into the lungs and are considered harmful to human health.

Ship air pollution effects are greatest in areas where heavily travelled ship routes exist in, and next to, densely populated communities. Some key regions include China, Singapore, Panama, Brazil and coastlines of Asia, Africa and South America.

"Essentially, we document how much health benefit to expect from the 2020 adoption of cleaner ship fuels," said Corbett, professor of marine science and policy in UD's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, and the paper's corresponding author.

Roughly 14 million annual cases of childhood asthma are estimated to be related to global ship pollution using current fuels. The change to cleaner ship fuels will reduce the ship-related childhood asthma cases by half.

Additionally, shipping pollution is estimated to contribute to 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease annually. This is about 7-8 percent of the global health burden caused by air pollution. Reducing ship sulphur emissions cuts these other global health related impacts, too, avoiding about one-third of the annual cardiovascular disease and lung cancer deaths from shipping air pollution.

Quantifying the effect of low-sulphur shipping fuels

Researchers used a state-of-the-art model of ship traffic based on satellite records to determine where ship activity was producing emissions, and adjusted to account for expected vessel emission growth rates by the year 2020. They used another high-resolution model to see how ship emissions would mix and chemically transform in the atmosphere, how they disperse and how they contribute to air quality where people live.

To compute how additional pollution from ships increases risk of disease for exposed populations, especially those living in coastal communities or along major shipping lanes and far inland in some nations like India, the team incorporated important underlying health information from the World Health Organization and Global Asthma Network.

"Our results show that these regulations are beneficial, but also that more health benefits remain possible with less-polluting ships," said James Winebrake, professor and dean at RIT, an authority on the environmental impacts of transportation, including health risk assessments.

The new IMO rule will decrease the allowable amount of sulphur in fuel oil from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent, a reduction from 35,000 parts per million (ppm) to 5,000 ppm. Refining industries will invest in the necessary technology to produce, and shipping will invest to adapt engine systems to use, these cleaner fuels. These costs will be borne by consumers in the prices of goods they buy. Corbett believes that improved is worth the investment.

"Cleaner ships fuels help people who don't have an economic role in the pollution they are suffering, some in places that aren't engaged in trade at all, as well as communities located along major shipping lanes," said Corbett, an expert on environmental policy and global shipping.

Public health benefits bring climate tradeoffs

While the health benefits are clear, the research also quantifies tradeoffs in terms of climate.

Sulphur dioxide emissions from ships create small particles. These sulphur containing particles reflect sunlight and help form brighter clouds, creating a global effect that temporarily diminishes the warming effects of carbon dioxide.

Think of this warming effect like a pot of water boiling on the stove. Adding ice cubes to the boiling water can slow how quickly the water heats up, but it does not stop the heating itself. It's the same with sulphur in the atmosphere.

So, what happens when ships emit less sulphur and warming from greenhouse gases is no longer offset?

"The use of cleaner ship fuels will increase the rate of global warming by about 3 percent," said FMI senior scientist Mikhail Sofiev, who led the climate related research. "This means more attention may be needed to reduce greenhouse gases across all sectors of the global economy."

At the same time, shipping activity is expected to increase with global trade and continue to produce harmful air emissions and greenhouse gases. Despite the upcoming reductions, low-sulphur marine fuels will still account for approximately 250,000 deaths and 6.4 million childhood asthma cases annually, so more stringent standards beyond 2020 may be needed to provide additional health benefits.

Explore further: Pollution from marine vessels linked to heart and lung disease

More information: Mikhail Sofiev et al, Cleaner fuels for ships provide public health benefits with climate tradeoffs, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02774-9

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Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Feb 07, 2018
3.6% globally. Really? Not 3.5 or 3.6. To be honest, what is the range of uncertainty surrounding this figure?

More "scientific" innumeracy, seen most spectacularly in Climate Science, where the global average temp 100 years from now is reckoned in tenths of a degree. Such precision! It must be true.
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 07, 2018
3.6% globally. Really? Not 3.5 or 3.6. To be honest, what is the range of uncertainty surrounding this figure?

Ya know, instead of complaining like a baby you could have clicked the link at the bottom and read the study. Your questions are answered therein.

But I understand: You wanted another opportunity to hoist the "I am scientifically illiterate"- neon sign over your head. Seems to be your favorite pastime.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2018
Attempts to clean up the fumes produced by marine bunker fuel, have resulted in improving diesel technology. More efficient engines producing less pollutants seems a given. But the industry is very conservative. Barely profitable with a variety of taxpayer subsidies.

Enforcement regulating the freighter industry is rather spotty. Cause there are a lot of local jobs at stake for the port hubs.

It is up to each of us to change our expectations about what global resources we are entitled to consume.

Purchasing an energy-efficient, mechanically sophisticated vehicle results in consuming less fuel for the same travel distance. With less need for constant maintenance.

Your iphone just needs a new smarter battery. Your VG player and your PC are still functional. And all you need to add are new apps and other software.

If you are not happy with what you have? Why did you bother to work so hard to buy all those geegaws, gadgets and toys?
Captain Stumpy
1 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2018
Enforcement regulating the freighter industry is rather spotty. Cause there are a lot of local jobs at stake for the port hubs
it's not just about jobs - it has far more to do with international law and it's lack of "teeth" for enforcement

"Much of international law is consent-based governance. This means that a state member is not obliged to abide by this type of international law, unless it has expressly consented to a particular course of conduct" - Slomanson, William (2011). Fundamental Perspectives on International Law. Boston, USA

Powerful nations don't want others telling them "how to live" or "what to do"

we should get @Uncle Ira to chime in on this topic as he is the best-and-most-qualified expert in the shipping field on this site, especially Marine Engineering

5 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2018
As a child I had severe asthma. Funny thing was I living in a pure untouched wilderness on the North end of Vancouver island. When I moved to Vancouver as a young adult my asthma disappeared and has not returned. Put that in your test tube and smoke it.
Captain Stumpy
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2018
As a child I had severe asthma. Funny thing was I living in a pure untouched wilderness on the North end of Vancouver island. When I moved to Vancouver as a young adult my asthma disappeared and has not returned....
read this:
Some common triggers" are:

Dust in your house

Tobacco smoke

Dirty air outside

Cockroach droppings



Hard exercise that makes you breathe really fast

Some medicines

Bad weather

Some kinds of food

Things you are worried about can cause an asthma attack. Even
getting really excited, or feeling very mad, sad, or scared can cause
an asthma attack.

Learn what TRIGGERs your asthma. Everyone is different and everyone has different triggers. What are your triggers—dirty air, cigarette smoke, pets, insects, mold, or something else?
3 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2018
Captain, I would be happy to read expert advice from Uncle Ira.

And I am not completely disagreeing with your opinions. But I think a big part of this problem is about the money.

SB, based on your experience? Is evidence for the contention that a change in environment is also a change in the toxic items triggering your asthma. Your body was no longer exposed to products it earlier had developed a sensitive reaction to.

Also, I'll bet in Vancouver you received a better quality of medical care. And assistance for your parents on how to avoid exposing you to new allergens.
not rated yet Feb 11, 2018
Also, I'll bet in Vancouver you received a better quality of medical care. And assistance for your parents on how to avoid exposing you to new allergens.

No, I had excellent medical care in both places. The mitigating factor was not medical care in my opinion. Severe attacks would happen on camping trips in the rain or even on clear cold nights. I used to chuckle when researchers would blame the cause on pollution. My Mother became a clean freak when I developed the condition, so I do not see how she would have missed any triggers. I did not lose the asthma immediately, but over a few years when in Vancouver. (No medical improvement was forthcoming at that time) Today, I have not experienced an attack in 40 years. It is almost as if I grew out of the condition.

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