From: Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune
Published February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Older Diesel Equipment Will Still Pose Health Problems, Group Says

CHICAGO — Though new diesel engines and fuel are required to operate more cleanly over the next 10 years, a new analysis suggests thousands of Americans will continue to suffer the effects of diesel pollution unless older trucks and equipment also are cleaned up.

The environmental group Clean Air Task Force borrowed methods used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate that diesel pollution causes more than 750 deaths and 1,000 heart attacks in the Chicago area each year.

Nationally, about 21,000 premature deaths annually can be attributed to microscopic particles in diesel exhaust, more than homicides (20,000) and drunken driving accidents (17,000), according to the report released Tuesday.

While an industry representative questioned whether the health effects are that widespread, there is little scientific doubt that soot and other particle pollution can trigger a variety of ailments and take years off lives.

Chicago is one of the nation's dirtiest regions for soot blown into the air by diesel trucks, construction equipment and other sources. Most of the other problem areas are in California or the eastern third of the country.

Rules adopted by the Bush administration will require cleaner diesel fuel and engines during the next decade. But the limits won't apply to millions of older engines that can keep operating for years.

"Those are great rules; they will hold new engines to higher standards," said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, a group of regional and local environmental organizations. "In the meantime, we're stuck with a legacy of dirty diesel engines."

The group urged federal and state officials to help finance the installation of equipment that can help existing diesel engines run more cleanly.

Combined with cleaner fuel, filters that act like a catalytic converter for diesel exhaust can reduce harmful pollution by up to 90 percent, according to industry studies.

Illinois already has started installing the devices on school buses. Nearly half of the 2,300 buses in the Chicago Public Schools' fleet will be cleaned up by the end of the year, a project funded by federal and state grants.

The Chicago Transit Authority also is installing the devices. And the CTA has helped open the regional market for cleaner diesel fuel by pumping low-sulfur diesel into its buses.

"What they've been doing is great," said Brian Urbaszewski of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "But so far it's been a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed."

The Clean Air Task Force said its report was based on EPA methods and data, along with various studies about the health effects of particle pollution.

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry trade group, said he had not thoroughly reviewed the study but questioned whether it relied on outdated information that could make the problem appear worse than it is.

More recent EPA data suggests that diesel emissions are responsible for a declining share of the nation's air pollution, in part because diesel engines have steadily become cleaner during the past 15 years, Schaeffer said.

"We have demonstrated our commitment to using technology and working together to address these issues," he said. "We're getting cleaner faster than most other industries."

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