By LAUREN WALKER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Its smell is suffocating. It makes eyes water and throats itch.
Breathing diesel exhaust is unhealthy, and it does more harm than simply irritate organs.
According to a new study, it is increasing the risk of cancer at an alarming rate, and the Michigan Diesel-Clean Up Campaign wants the state to do something about it.
“There are few things that we can instantaneously clean up when it comes to the environment,” said Susan Harley, policy director of Michigan Clean Water Action, the parent group of the Diesel Clean-Up Campaign.
She said that diesel exhaust is a serious problem with a relatively easy fix. Her group is pushing to get control technologies, like filters, required on all diesel engines and to limit the amount of time diesel vehicles can idle.
Since the economy is the biggest obstacle to new diesel regulations, Harley said her organization is pressing for policies that are feasible in the current economic climate. Requiring filters on diesel engines is expensive, so this year the Clean-Up Campaign is focusing on idling restrictions.
Harley said that more than half of the states have local or statewide limits on engine idling time. She said that there has been momentum behind legislation that would most likely set a 5 minute-per-hour limit.
“This is a very lost-cost thing that we could move forward and still see really great reductions,” she said.
Harley said her organization is working with several lawmakers to get this legislation introduced in the coming weeks.
Last year, however, a similar bill died in committee.
Walter Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association, said he does not comment on legislation until it has been introduced. He said that his organization did not oppose similar legislation last year, but that there were concerns with the language involving alternative power units, or substitute power sources, for idling engines.
If the proposal becomes law, the number of premature deaths and asthma attacks in the state wouldn’t decrease as fast as they would if more dramatic changes were enacted, Harley said.
According to the Clean-up Campaign, 443 people died prematurely due to diesel exhaust in 2010, 648 suffered nonfatal heart attacks and 15,004 suffered asthma attacks.
Cancer risk is also a major health threat posed by diesel fumes, according to the Clean Air Task Force (CATF).
Nationwide, the average lifetime cancer risk from diesel exhaust exposure is 159 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable level, according to the task force, a national group that advocates reducing air pollutants.
The task force also found the risk to be more than three times greater than the risk of all types of toxins tracked by the EPA combined.
CATF estimated the cancer risk with data from the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment and a cancer risk factor developed by the California Air Resources Board.
Harley said some people don’t understand the full implications that diesel exhaust has for their health.
“Instinctively you look at a truck that’s billowing black smoke and you think that can’t be good for me, but you don’t always think that’s raising my cancer risk by an unacceptable level. If I have asthma or if I have some other cardiovascular issue, it’s really putting me at risk of death,” she said.
According to the Diesel Clean-Up Campaign, diesel contains carcinogens such as benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
Shelly Kiser, advocacy director for the American Lung Association in Michigan, said that while the carcinogens in diesel exhaust are harmful, particulate pollution from burning diesel is one of the most dangerous air pollutants.
Particulate matter, or very tiny particles, can easily invade the body and get deep into the lungs and cause serious damage, Kiser said. Often those particles carry other toxins from the exhaust, according to the Clean-Up Campaign.
“There are so many people that are in the groups that are immediately affected by particulate matter. If you consider everyone in Michigan that is elderly, that is young, that has lung disease or heart disease — that’s a huge amount of people,
“It’s not something that they have to be exposed to for an extended amount of time, like with cancer. Particulate matter immediately impacts people and causes hospitalization and death,” she said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.