|Environmental Research Foundation Home|
|Rachel's Democracy & Health News|
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|#807 -- The Diesel Opportunity, December 23, 2004|
The deadly effects of breathing diesel fumes came into sharp focus this week when the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) released a report estimating that diesel fumes kill about 21,000 U.S. citizens each year.
Furthermore, diesel fumes cause 27,000 nonfatal heart attacks and 410,000 asthma attacks in U.S. adults each year, plus roughly 12,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 15,000 hospital admissions, 2.4 million lost-work days, and 14 million restricted activity days.
And that is almost certainly not the worst of it. The Clean Air Task Force report cites numerous studies revealing that diesel soot
** degrades the immune system (the system that protects us all from bacteria, viruses and cancers);
** interferes with our hormones, reducing sperm production, masculinizing female rats, altering the development of baby rats (changing their bones, thymus, and nervous systems), modifying their adrenal and reproductive hormones;
** causes serious, permanent impairment of the nervous system in diesel-exposed railroad workers;
** induces allergic reactions, not limited to asthma, causing children to miss thousands upon thousands of school-days -- a primary cause of school dropout, consequent low self-esteem, and subsequent life-failure.
The new report is based on the most recent available data from the federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) combined with EPA risk models, with calculations carried out by Abt Associates, a consulting firm that frequently performs contract studies for the EPA.
The key findings of the report should come as no surprise. The dangers of breathing diesel fumes have been known for at least two decades.
More than 20 years ago, numerous researchers confirmed and reconfirmed that they could cause lung cancer in laboratory animals breathing air laced with diesel fumes.
To anyone taking a precautionary approach, this confirmed knowledge of diesel's ill effects on animals would have jump-started a search for alternative ways to power on-road and off-road machines, to phase out diesel in an orderly step-wise fashion.
But the National Academy of Sciences did not take a precautionary approach. The New York Times reported Dec. 23, 1981, that the Academy acknowledged that diesel soot is known to contain suspected cancer- causing substances. But the Academy said, "no convincing epidemiological evidence exists" that there is "a connection between diesel fumes and human cancer." In other words, let's not act on the animal evidence -- let's hunker down and wait until we can line up the dead humans. This is the risk-based approach to public health. It is the opposite of a precautionary approach.
Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1985, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a scientific report about the dangers of diesel fumes in New York. The New York Times reported May 18, 1985: "Diesel emissions are probably the single most important air-quality threat in New York City today," said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer for the environmental group and an author of the report. "But city, state and Federal agencies have not yet mounted a broad-based counterattack." The Times reported then that a spokesperson for the New York State Environmental Conservation Department acknowledged that diesel fumes cause lung cancer in humans but, he said, the state was "not yet sure" how big the problem was. The state had no plan for dealing with diesel because "we have not identified the extent of the problem," he said.
This is a classic example of the risk-based approach. Ignore the evidence so long as it is not 100% airtight. Use uncertainty as an excuse to delay. Wait for the dead bodies to pile up, then slowly acknowledge the need for action.
By 1985, there was no doubt that dead bodies were piling up. But the exact number of corpses remained uncertain, so the risk-based approach allowed "business as usual" to continue.
From a precautionary perspective, knowing that a technology causes lung cancer, and knowing that hundreds of millions of people are exposed to it, just naturally kicks off a search for less-harmful alternatives. But no one in 1985 was taking a precautionary approach.
In 1988 the federal government's Robert A. Taft Laboratory in Cincinnati published NIOSH report 88-116, officially confirming that exposure to diesel fumes causes lung cancer in humans.
At this point the precautionary principle would insist that a search for alternatives begin. Other fuels? Other kinds of engines? Filters for trapping the fumes and soot? Innovative modes of transportation for moving goods and people? Other ways of planning city growth, to reduce reliance on trucks and buses? Electrified steel-rail mass transit? Maglev trains? Hydrogen? Steam? Compressed air? The alternatives are many.
A precautionary approach would focus attention on eliminating the problem rather than arguing over the exact body count. Is a diesel-free world possible? Working backward from the vision of a diesel-free world, what steps could we be taking today to achieve the vision? That is the essence of a precautionary approach.
But the risk-based approach serves the purposes of "business as usual," and therefore has the backing of powerful special interests. So long as the exact size of the problem is uncertain, risk assessors can always call for delay and more study. And, since scientists-for- hire can always reinterpret old data to cast doubt on the nature of the problem, action can be stalled for decades. This is in fact what has happened with diesel.
On May 2, 1995 the New York Times reported that researchers were casting new doubts on the evidence that diesel fumes cause cancer in humans. They acknowledged that diesel soot might endanger people by aggravating conditions like asthma, chronic bronchitis and cystic fibrosis, but lung cancer? Probably not, they said.
The Times reported then, "Studies in humans found that those with an occupational exposure to diesel smoke had lung cancer rates 20 to 50 percent higher than other workers, but none of the studies were precise about the level of exposures...." so the studies could not be relied upon to tell us the true cancer danger among the general public in places like New York City and Los Angeles.
Doubt is a powerful helpmate when your goal is to maintain "business as usual." The risk-based approach waits for the holy grail of scientific certainty to emerge from the data -- until then, just keep on truckin'.
So now in 2005 we awake to learn that we have a public health disaster on our hands, with at estimated 21,000 deaths each year caused by diesel fumes, and more than 100 times that number made sick.
It is time to engage in an urgent search for a way out of this diesel disaster. Every college and university that receives any public funds (including tax exemptions for private institutions) could to commit to doing something to solve this problem, engaging in a coordinated effort to figure out how to make the U.S. "diesel-free or darn near" within 15 years. Given that we have "risk assessed" our way into this problem, we could refuse to wait for further study to determine the exact placement of the decimal point. We could take precautionary action now, aiming to ELIMINATE this problem.
But precaution is not (yet) fashionable. Risk-assessment is. So, for example, in our home state of New Jersey (which likes to think of itself as environmentally progressive), the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has set a goal of reducing diesel emissions by 20% over the next eight or nine years -- during which time an additional 7 or 8 thousand citizens of New Jersey will have been killed by diesel fumes with many times that number made sick.
But a recent study revealed that truck traffic in New Jersey is likely to increase 80 percent (!) in the next 15 years, so the DEP's plan seems unlikely to make any real headway against the diesel deathtrap. Their goal is too timid.
Something much larger is needed. Something bold, innovative, aggressive and comprehensive. Something commensurate with the size and urgency of the diesel menace.
Every state's colleges and universities that receive public subsidies could focus enormous resources on this problem, to find solutions as quickly as is humanly possible.
Diesel presents a conundrum for urban designers and planners, and for those with urban transportation know-how. It is a complex engineering problem, fraught with fundamental questions in several hard sciences. It is an environmental problem, a medical/biological problem, a legal problem, and a management problem. It is an enormous public health problem. It is a problem of public administration and good government. It is, above all else, an ethical problem, a problem of fairness and justice -- those most harmed are those least able to defend themselves, children of the urban poor. Philosophers, economists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, writers, and all the humanistic disciplines (arts, dance, theater, literature, film, and music) could make important, unique contributions. Knowledge and skills from business, labor, and decision-making are needed. Every discipline could contribute because this diesel poses a fundamental question for a self-governing people. In the original conception of this country, how was democracy supposed to work? Who is supposed to decide?
Because the diesel industry involves huge sums, diesel presents us with a fundamental problem of democratic self-rule. Despite mounting evidence of widespread harm, diesel has been maintained all these years by corporations and their trade associations and lobbyists --from Detroit and Houston to Washington and in every statehouse -- who have run roughshod over the needs and interests of the American people for the last half-century, a tiny few who wield life-and-death power over the many -- harnessing governments to employ their risk-based approach to deflect and stymie the search for least harmful alternatives. (To learn more about this appalling story of corporate crime against the people of the U.S., see Rachel's #439 at www.rachel.org, and see the video, "Taken for a Ride," which tells the story of a proven conspiracy between General Motors, Firestone Rubber, and Standard Oil of California to buy up and destroy the streetcar systems of 80 U.S. cities and replace them with diesel buses).
At bottom, the diesel problem forces us to ask, What does our democracy really mean? How can a tiny minority of powerful people keep the multitudes locked into this deadly dead-end technology decade after decade? Surely, another world is possible. The publicly- subsidized institutions of higher learning in every state could help us all visualize and then realize that better world.
The taxpayers of each state would feel well-served by a university system that would mount a coordinated effort to solve complex and pressing public problems, to help us preserve and enhance the common wealth, like clean air and our right to breathe it.
Suddenly every state's very substantial brain trust within higher education would take on new relevance to the lives of the taxpaying public, and it would be appreciated and rewarded for its efforts. As a result, educational funding would naturally rise -- a win-win for higher education and for the citizenry.
In the process, the nation's colleges and universities could gain experience working together to solve other deep problems facing us all. With close guidance from citizens, they could develop a public- interest research agenda and a modern capacity for precautionary problem-solving. With such an effort, the U.S. might actually reverse 40 years of environmental destruction and urban deterioration and finally turn the corner. That's the diesel opportunity.
A version of this essay first appeared in Garden State EnviroNews February 23, 2005; http://www.gsenet.org.