Toxic emissions from ships kill thousands of people each year

Shipping vessels are built to burn the cheapest types of fuel – normally a mix of leftover diesel. It cuts the cost of sending things across the ocean but vast quantities of sulphur and other harmful gases are released into the air by the world’s 90 000 container ships.

A single vessel releases as many chemical pollutants as 50-million cars.  This is according to the last serious research into the effect globally of this aspect of shipping, done in 2009 for the World Health Organisation.

It found that emissions from vessels caused 60 000 premature deaths every year. Most of these deaths were in Asian cities, the region hosting the world’s 10 biggest ports.

The same research said the healthcare cost was $330-billion a year.  Global shipping has doubled since 2009 and ships are bigger. These vessels sail through South African waters, dock at South African ports and unload cargo. That means the health of people in South Africa is affected and their lives curtailed.

But it’s nearly impossible to put numbers to the effect of shipping on health and the environment; comprehensive local research does not exist. A 2007 report for the International Maritime Organisation comes the closest to giving (albeit outdated) numbers: 12 people died in that year in Durban because of vessel emissions, and nine died in Cape Town.


Local research has been restricted to trying to work out what is coming out of vessels when they are in port, but even this information is minimal. A University of KwaZulu-Natal study last year, investigating Durban’s port, said: “Like many other ports globally, Durban suffers from the lack of proper quantification of emissions resulting from ships in the port.”

The port carries 60% of South Africa’s imports and exports. Looking at the effect of the 4 238 ocean-going vessels that carry this cargo, the university tracked those in the port for the year up to April 2013.

Researchers found these vessels were having a significant effect on the city’s air quality. Total emissions stood at 920 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 798 tonnes of sulphur oxides and 84 tonnes of particulate matter. Container ships accounted for 40% of these emissions.

These emissions meant shipping ranked alongside other, well researched, polluters in Durban – Engen’s refinery emitted 2 700 tonnes of sulphur oxides in 2011. All the cars in the city emitted 203 tonnes in 2013.

The three gases harm any living creature with lungs. Each gas comes in the form of tiny particles, 500 times finer than human hair, that float about before being inhaled. The wind can blow them up to 50km away.

This creates numerous respiratory problems, the World Health Organisation said. At first, people end up in the emergency section of hospitals with short-term respiratory failure. Over time, their lung capacity is reduced to the level where they have to be permanently hooked up to machines to survive. The next step is death.

Cognisant of this, the chief executive of Transnet Port Terminals Karl Socikwa said last year: “The danger is real. Increased emissions have the potential to severely impact the lives of people around port cities.” This is an acute problem, with shipping predicted to double by 2030, he said.

Socikwa said his state utility would do its bit by upgrading its infrastructure, so that vessels could be turned around quicker and so spend less time in ports. But shipping companies had to do their bit, he said.

“It is vital that shipping companies also do their part to continue to reduce emissions through the introduction of new, more energy-efficient vessels, or the retrofitting of older vessels.”

Those older vessels burn diesel that has 3 000 times more sulphur content than is allowed in cars.

The World Maritime Organisation is the body charged with ensuring cleaner fuels and newer engines are mandated for the shipping industry. It introduced a convention in 2009 that would do just this, resulting in dramatically reduced amounts of sulphur and other pollutants that vessels emit. These regulations are to come into force in 2020.

But the organisation is funded by countries, in proportion to the size of their fleet, and most vessels fly flags of convenience in countries such as Panama. These countries vote on any convention and can delay implementation.

Reluctant to wait for this form of self-regulation to play out, the United States and European Union have introduced Emission Control Areas. These are buffer zones that extend along their coastlines, and 370km out to sea. Once in these, vessels have to switch to cleaner, low-sulphur fuels. Similar zones are planned in China.

None are in the pipeline in South Africa. That means vessels are ploughing through local waters, using dirtier fuels that they do in ports in the northern hemisphere. These fuels kill people. We just don’t know how many.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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