Research Seeks to Reduce Global Deaths from Shipping

Findings show that reduction in sulfur content cuts fatalities nearly in half

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A new study from Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Delaware indicates that the sulfur content present in shipping fuel is a key cause of fatalities linked to shipping in coastal areas worldwide. The research also found that reducing sulfur content in fuel to 0.5 percent would cut fatalities nearly in half.

James Winebrake, professor of science, technology and public policy at RIT, and James Corbett, professor of marine policy at Delaware, published their results in the July issue of Environmental Science & Technology, a leading international environmental science journal. Co-authors from Germany and the United States also participated in the study.

According to the research team, the analysis will assist the International Maritime Organization—or IMO, the United Nations body that regulates international shipping—in developing additional emissions control rules. Winebrake and Corbett note that without any emissions controls, worldwide deaths from shipping could reach 87,000 annually by 2012.

The team found that requiring ships globally to reduce fuel sulfur content to 0.5 percent would reduce premature deaths by about half, or 41,200. Requiring ships to use fuel with 0.5 percent sulfur within 200 nautical miles of coastal areas would reduce premature deaths by about 33,500.

“The problems of emissions from shipping are sizable,” says Winebrake. “Our analyses reflect policy proposals submitted to the IMO by various countries, such as the U.S. and Canada. The results provide quantifiable evidence that these regulations could have a significant impact on human health.”

“This study of health-based impacts to coastal populations around the globe shows that real health benefits are associated with cleaner fuels producing lower particle emissions from ships,” adds Corbett.

Current fuel sulfur content for ships averages about 2.4 percent, with upper limits as high as 4.5 percent. The IMO recently passed a rule that creates a cap of 3.5 percent for sulfur content in ship fuel by 2012 and 0.5 percent by 2020.

Winebrake and Corbett’s study analyzed ship emissions’ health impacts by integrating global ship inventories, climate models, population models and health impacts functions.

The study was supported by the Oak Foundation, the Helmholz Association of German Research Centers and the German Aerospace Center. Additional funding was provided by the Sustainable Intermodal Freight Transportation Research Program, a multi-university initiative led by Winebrake and Corbett.