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newsrel -- Air pollution caused by ships plummets when vessels shift to cleaner, low-sulfur fuels

Posted: 12 Sep 2011 14:21:46
Ships within 24 nautical miles of California's coast must use
cleaner burning fuel. Release #:11-41

ARB PIO: (916) 322-2990

Dimitri Stanich

NOAA: Katy Human

NOAA-led study: Air pollution caused by ships plummets when
vessels shift to cleaner, low-sulfur fuels

SACRAMENTO - New clean fuel regulations in California and
voluntary slowdowns by shipping companies substantially reduce
air pollution caused by near-shore ships, according to a new
NOAA-led study published online today in Environmental Science &
The study examined a container ship operating under a 2009
California regulation requiring that ships switch to low-sulfur
fuels as they approach the California coast, and also adhering to
a voluntary state slowdown policy, intended to reduce pollution.
The research team found that emissions of several health-damaging
pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and particulate matter,
dropped by as much as 90 percent.
Findings of this study could have national and global
significance, as new international regulations by the
International Maritime Organization require vessels to switch to
lower-sulfur fuel near U.S. and international coasts beginning in
2012. The research team found reductions in emissions even where
none were expected, meaning even greater reductions in air
pollution, and associated respiratory health effects in humans,
than regulators originally estimated.
“This study gives us a sense of what to expect in the future, for
the people of California, the nation, and even the globe,” said
Daniel Lack, chemist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory
and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental
Sciences. “This really is where science gets fun – a study with
first-rate institutions, equipment and people, probing the
effects of policy. It’s important to know that the imposed
regulations have the expected impacts. The regulators want to
know, the shipping companies want to know, and so do the
In May 2010, a NOAA research aircraft flew over a commercial
container ship, Maersk Line’s Margrethe Maersk, about 40 miles
off the coast of California. Researchers on the aircraft used
sophisticated custom instruments to ‘sniff’ the ship’s emissions
before the ship switched to lower-sulfur fuels (by law, within 24
miles of the California coast) and slowed down voluntarily.
A few days later, scientists aboard the NOAA-sponsored Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute’s research vessel Atlantis sampled
emissions of the same ship as it cruised slowly within the
low-sulfur regulated zone.
Sulfur dioxide levels, which were expected to drop, did do so,
plummeting 91 percent from 49 grams of emissions per kilogram of
fuel to 4.3 grams. Sulfur dioxide is best known as a precursor to
acid rain, but can degrade air quality in other ways, directly
and indirectly through chemical reactions in the atmosphere. In
particular, emissions of sulfur dioxide lead to formation of
particulate matter in the atmosphere which poses serious public
health concerns.
Particulate matter pollution, regulated because it can damage
people’s lungs and hearts, dropped 90 percent from 3.77 grams of
emissions per kg of fuel to 0.39 grams.
Unexpectedly, black carbon levels also dropped, cut by 41
percent, the team reported. Black carbon comprises dark-colored
particles that can warm the atmosphere and also degrade air
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its
Canadian equivalent, Environment Canada, estimated that shifting
to low-sulfur fuels near coasts could save as many as 8,300 lives
per year in those two countries, and ease the acute respiratory
symptoms faced by another 3 million. But that 2009 assessment did
not include the observed drops in several pollutant categories
that Lack and his colleagues found, so the authors suggest the
impacts could be greater.  
Finally, the new paper discusses the net radiative (warming vs.
cooling) effect of the ship’s fuel switch. Changes in the
emissions of various air pollutants – some which have a warming
effect, others which have cooling effects – likely mean net
The project was funded by NOAA and the California Air Resources
Board and conducted in close collaboration with the Maersk Line.
“These scientific findings clearly demonstrate that ships off our
coast now emit significantly less sulfur pollution than in the
past,” said California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D.
Nichols. “This is good news for California and for the nation.
When the federal regulations kick in for ships to use low-sulfur
fuel, communities throughout America that live near shipping
lanes and next to ports will see clean air benefits.”
The new paper, Impact of Fuel Quality Regulation and Speed
Reductions on Shipping Emissions: Implications for Climate and
Air Quality, is available at the Environmental Science &
Technology website. Lack’s 28 co-authors are from 10 research
institutions from both the U.S. and Canada.

ARB's mission is to promote and protect public health, welfare,
and ecological resources through effective reduction of air
pollutants while recognizing and considering effects on the
economy. The ARB oversees all air pollution control efforts in
California to attain and maintain health based air quality

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