New Report Fuels Fight Over Tighter Diesel Emission Rules

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March 15, 2000 (Washington) -- Clean air advocates today challenged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dramatically increase the regulation of diesel engines and fuel. They issued a report claiming that if today's level of diesel exhaust continues, the pollution could be expected to cause more than 125,000 cases of lung cancer in 70 years, about the period of one lifetime.

"Resolving this national problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the EPA," said William Becker, executive director of a national association of local and state pollution control officials that released the report. Diesel emissions, Becker tells WebMD, "are the most visible form of air pollution." Even children, he adds, are well aware of how much noxious waste trucks belch out every day along the highways. The advocates add that a proposed EPA regulation may meet the proponents' standards. The proposal is under review by White House officials -- and under attack by groups within the petroleum industry as well as users like fuel stations, truck stops, and convenience stores.

The EPA has not formally reported on the human hazards of diesel emissions. The control of diesel fuel is less stringent than the regulations governing gasoline engines and their typical fuels. But the agency has become more concerned over the health threats of diesel fuel because the U.S. is using more of it, for many reasons. The number of diesel-powered sports utility vehicles and light trucks is increasing, for example, and the strong economy and construction boom have been fueling more use of "off-road" diesel equipment such as tractors and bulldozers.

EPA spokeswoman Cathie Milbourn tells WebMD that the agency hasn't yet seen the new report. But she says, "We are concerned about the cancer and non-cancer health effects of diesel fuel exhaust."

Diesel emissions are a significant source of nitrogen oxides, which are a big contributor to ground-level ozone, the main ingredient of smog. The emissions also include numerous chemical compounds and small bits of material that may contribute to developing cancer.

But the EPA may require reductions in the amount of sulfur in diesel fuel. And engines may need to be able to absorb and filter harmful substances before they become air pollutants.


The industry groups say that the EPA and air advocates seek cuts in sulfur levels that are unrealistic. According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), the reductions are "far beyond what is warranted to achieve environmental goals, and may be technologically impossible."

Julie Rosenbaum, spokeswoman for the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, tells WebMD that the lower sulfur levels would increase the price of diesel fuel and cause supply problems, as refineries shut down in order to alter their equipment to comply with new standards. The association and its allies back a less severe cut to sulfur levels that would be phased in more slowly than that favored by the EPA and pollution control officials.

API also claims the cancer projections are "broad extrapolations" that lack "sufficient scientific backup."

Paul Billings, a lobbyist with the American Lung Association, says that the industry's position is a "Chicken Little approach." He tells WebMD, "They want to ignore the health effects."

But as independent truckers make their second pilgrimage in a month to Washington to complain about high diesel prices, the air advocates acknowledge concern that the EPA proposal may change before it is publicly released later this year.

Becker tells WebMD, "There is a lot of pressure that is being mounted by the industry that might interfere with them doing the right thing." Noting that this is an election year, he says, "It's a weird political season, and anything can happen."

Vital Information:

  • Clean air advocates report that today's exhaust from diesel engines, left uncontrolled over one's lifetime, could cause more than 125,000 cases of lung cancer in the U.S.
  • The report comes as the White House reviews new regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One proposed measure is to cut the amount of sulfur in diesel fuel and to require engines to be able to filter out other contaminants.
  • Members of the petroleum industry say they fear the expense new EPA regulations would create, and they question the scientific validity of the report about diesel wastes causing cancer.
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