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Dire health effects of pollution reported

Diesel soot from construction equipment is blamed for illnesses and premature deaths.

December 06, 2006|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The effects of air pollution from construction equipment in California are "staggering," according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The environmental group concluded that at least 1,100 premature deaths and half a million work and school absences in 2005 were caused by people breathing emissions from older tractors, bulldozers and other diesel equipment -- at an estimated public health cost of $9.1 billion.

The report was one of two studies released Tuesday on the severe health hazards of exposure to the soot in diesel emissions.

"This is the first time the health and economic impacts of construction-related air pollution in California have ever been analyzed," said Don Anair, author of the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report urged state regulators to quickly require owners to retrofit or replace older equipment.

"Construction equipment being used to build our hospitals shouldn't fill them up.... This is a bill being footed by everyone in California, and particulate pollution is a silent killer," Anair said, citing asthma attacks, cancer and heart disease.

The Los Angeles air basin fared the worst among 15 statewide, with 731 estimated premature deaths, both in the city and in suburban areas such as Santa Clarita, Temecula and Murietta, where there has been large-scale construction to accommodate fast-growing populations.

Heavily populated and fast-growing parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and the San Joaquin and northern Sacramento valleys also experienced high health costs from construction equipment, the union of scientists' report found.

The second study, by Brigham Young University professor Arden Pope and a team of doctors, found a sharply elevated risk of heart attacks for people with clogged arteries after just a day or two of exposure to diesel soot pollution.

The study was published in Cardiology, the nation's leading peer-reviewed journal of heart science. One coauthor said the results should prompt heart doctors to advise those with coronary disease to stay indoors as much as possible on particularly sooty days, or even to change jobs or move.

The fine particulate matter that is spewed from diesel engines and tailpipes lodges "like tiny razor blades" deep in human lungs, said Kevin Hamilton, a Fresno-based respiratory therapist who reviewed the findings.

Clouds of soot emitted by 750-horsepower excavators can travel downwind for miles, then drift into heavily populated areas, Anair said.

An estimated 70% of California's construction equipment is currently not covered by federal and state regulations because it is too old, state officials said.

Although federal rules adopted in 2004 require cleaner-emitting new equipment, the regulations don't cover existing engines. Anair said an average excavator or tractor can last 20 or 30 years, meaning it could be decades before all the dirty equipment is replaced.

Calling the timing coincidental, the California Air Resources Board on Monday released a draft of new regulations for older engines. The proposal would require all construction, mining and other industrial off-road equipment to be replaced or retrofitted between 2009 and 2020 as part of an effort to reduce diesel particulate emissions by 85% and nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient in smog, by 70%, said Erik White, chief of the board's heavy-duty diesel branch. Public workshops on the plan will be held this month, and the board is expected to vote next spring.

White said estimated compliance costs could top $3 billion over 11 years but maintained that the $60 billion-a-year construction industry "is certainly capable of absorbing the impacts."

He added, however, that both cost and a lack of readily available retrofitting devices -- combined with the need to include smog-reduction as well as soot-control devices -- meant cleanup would occur gradually.

John Hakel, vice president of the Associated General Contractors, which represents construction equipment fleet owners and general contractors, said late Tuesday that he had just received the report and could not comment on specifics. But he said the industry is dedicated to cleaning up equipment. He agreed it would be a costly and lengthy process and said state officials and the Union of Concerned Scientists report appeared to underestimate the sheer volume of construction equipment, which he estimated at 250,000 to 300,000 machines. The second study found that for every additional 10 micrograms of soot in a cubic meter of air, there was a 4.5% increase in heart attacks.

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