Thursday, February 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Where the worst air is

Seattle Times staff reporters

How we measured cancer risk

A Seattle Times analysis found that cancer risk from air pollution is much higher than measurements released Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency indicate.

The EPA measured 78 cancer-causing air pollutants and created an estimated cancer risk for each census tract in the U.S. But the EPA analysis left out diesel emissions because scientists decided they couldn't accurately calculate the cancer risk of that pollution.

However, California, a state often on the forefront of pollution regulation — has calculated cancer risk from diesel pollution. That standard has been accepted by two major Washington agencies, the Washington Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, to analyze the EPA data. The Seattle Times also used that calculation. Additionally, the Times used a higher-cancer risk estimate than the EPA did for formaldehyde, using the same calculation as Ecology and the clean-air agency.

The risk estimates are based on an average life span of 70 years. After including diesel emissions and the higher formaldehyde estimates, the Times analysis found the cancer risk from air pollution was 236 people per million in Washington and 396 people per million in King County. That puts King County in the top 2 percent of counties nationwide. The pollutants that account for most of the risk in the Times analysis are diesel emissions, formaldehyde and benzene. Diesel makes up about 70 percent of the risk.

For more information

Environmental Protection Agency report:

Puget Sound Clean Air Agency:

From the courtyard in the middle of downtown Seattle's fancy Harbor Steps Apartments, there's little sign of the industrial giant nearby.

The space is an oasis of calm. A yoga studio beckons from one side, a coffee shop from another. Overhead, apartments rent for as much as $5,600 a month.

The huge red cranes at the Port of Seattle aren't even visible from here. But it's what's invisible that's the problem. The air in this part of Seattle, some of it wafting from mammoth cargo ships idling at the port, is some of the unhealthiest in the state and the entire nation.

With only a few exceptions, the most unhealthful air in the state is found in neighborhoods near ports throughout Western Washington, according to a Seattle Times analysis of an Environmental Protection Agency study of cancer-causing air pollution, released publicly Wednesday.

Those areas are home to tens of thousands of people. And the problem could get worse because of growing global commerce and lax government control over the pollution that spews from the big freighters.

In Seattle, the bad air reaches residential parts of West Seattle and much of downtown. More and more people are living downtown, and once-seedy neighborhoods like the area around Pike Place Market are being eyed as sites for million-dollar condominiums.

Even the small Puget Sound city of Anacortes has some of the region's worst air, partly because huge oil tankers motor past and park at nearby refineries.

That means people in those areas are breathing more pollutants linked to lung cancer, asthma and possibly heart disease.

"The people who live around ports are subsidizing the cost of trade through their health and through their lives," said Julie Masters, a senior attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, and an expert on port pollution.

Local clean-air regulators say the problem could grow as ports get busier, unless more is done.

"Our next big concern is the ports," said Dennis McLerran, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which monitors air quality in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties. "The good news is that everyone that we are working with understands that this is a big issue that needs to be dealt with."

Diesel, diesel everywhere

At Seattle's Harbor Steps, air pollution doesn't worry resident Heath Miller.

For the past five years, the 45-year-old obstetrician/gynecologist has lived in a corner apartment here, with traffic whizzing past on the Alaskan Way Viaduct less than 200 yards from his balcony.

A black, sooty grime builds up on his patio furniture, but Miller just cleans it off. He has never had any breathing problems.

"The convenience overrides any potential pollution," he said of the apartment's location.

Miller is among about 95,000 people who live in the 30 census tracts in the state with the unhealthiest air, according to the Times analysis of the EPA study. The tract where he lives is in the top 1 percent of all census tracts nationwide for cancer-causing air pollution, based on the analysis.

The air in the 30 most-polluted tracts could cause about 100 cases of lung cancer if all those people stayed in the neighborhoods for 70 years, according to the Times analysis.

While that's concerning to environmental regulators, it's not as serious a health threat as secondhand cigarette smoke. Roughly 665 out of 95,000 nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke would get lung cancer during their life, according to a study by California's Environmental Protection Agency.

The number of cancer cases from air pollution could be exaggerated, because the computer model used by the federal EPA assumed that people would live in the same neighborhood for much of their lives. But such estimates are frequently used to gauge health risk from pollution, and to compare one neighborhood to another.

The new EPA data doesn't say how much of the air pollution in a neighborhood comes from a port.

However, nearly all of the tracts with the worst air are clustered around ports: the Port of Seattle, the Port of Tacoma, the Port of Longview, the Port of Vancouver and the refineries at Anacortes.

Compared with the average Washington neighborhood, the ones with the worst air also get more diesel pollution from vehicles such as ships, trains, and hauling and construction equipment, all found at ports. Diesel exhaust represents roughly 70 percent of the cancer risk posed by air pollution around the state.

A modern seaport is driven by diesel. A single freighter idling at port can produce as much diesel pollution as 2,300 semi trucks driving down the highway. The ships use auxiliary diesel engines to provide electrical power while they are stopped. Huge, diesel-powered cranes load containers onto diesel trucks and trains.

In Los Angeles, a government study last year found that in neighborhoods near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, diesel emissions from the ports alone would cause more than 500 cases of cancer for every 1 million people, increase asthma rates, and cause some premature deaths in people suffering respiratory or heart problems.

Even people living more than 15 miles away faced a higher risk of cancer because of port diesel pollution.

Free pass for big ships

Federal agencies have taken major steps recently to clean up diesel engines and the fuel itself — except when it comes to the big ships.

In October, all diesel cars and trucks in the U.S. will start using diesel with very low sulfur, a major pollution source. Vehicles built in 2007 and later must have diesel engines that cut pollution by 95 percent compared to the average engine on the road today. Trains, cranes and other diesel-powered equipment will be required to follow a few years later.

But the biggest ships — oceangoing oil tankers and freighters — have escaped similar restrictions. The EPA in 2002 dropped a proposal to require cleaner engines on big ships docking in the U.S., partly because of the challenge of regulating ships licensed in other countries.

The black, syrupy diesel fuel that drives the huge ships pulling into Washington ports is allowed to have as much as 3,000 times more sulfur than the diesel to be required in trucks this fall.

At the same time, more ships, and bigger ones, are going to be steaming into Puget Sound ports. The ports are expected to handle two-thirds more cargo in 2025 than they did in 2002, according to a recent report.

Demanding cleaner air

Washington port officials are starting to try to control air pollution, partly to avoid a replay of the troubles in California.

In Los Angeles and Oakland, port neighbors have won environmental lawsuits. In the biggest case to date, residents near the Port of Los Angeles halted a major expansion over air pollution, and forced a $60 million settlement in 2003 that included commitments to clean up operations.

The mayor of Los Angeles has vowed to hold port emissions at 2001 levels. The California Air Resources Board just set tougher limits on the sulfur content in fuel that the ships use while docked and to run their electrical systems.

In January, the union representing tens of thousands of West Coast dockworkers called for a one-fifth cut in ship pollution by 2010, amid concerns about the health of port workers and surrounding communities. Industry officials have said they are working to address pollution but haven't embraced the union's deadline.

Seattle and Tacoma port officials say the air here is much cleaner. The Puget Sound region's air now meets federal clean-air standards, unlike L.A. However, those standards don't take into account some of the cancer-causing air pollutants found in diesel exhaust.

"We want to stay ahead of this issue, and we don't want to be in a position where we are not seen as a benefit to this region," said Port of Tacoma spokesman Mike Wasem.

To clean the air, local ports have installed anti-pollution equipment on cargo-hauling machines. In Seattle, two cruise ships now can shut off their engines while at downtown docks and plug into the city's electrical system. The Port is also negotiating with cruise companies about using lower-sulfur fuel.

The Port of Seattle and its largest cargo-handling company — SSA Marine — are starting to use a blend of regular diesel and vegetable-based biodiesel in equipment and vehicles. The Port of Tacoma has replaced large cranes with cleaner-running models, and ultra-low-sulfur diesel is used in some of the cargo-hauling equipment.

Unlike in California, there's no move in Washington to seek tougher local or state restrictions on freighters and oil tankers. Instead, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and ports are lobbying for the International Maritime Organization to require cleaner fuel in ships that dock anywhere in North America.

"Unfortunately, anything that's international moves pretty slowly," said Dave Kircher, manager of the air-resources department for Puget Sound Clean Air.

The work now happening at the ports is only a start, said McLerran of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. It's not even known how much diesel pollution is produced by ports and ships in Puget Sound — a task force is trying to measure that.

"I'm very upbeat and optimistic about our ability to take this on and stay out in front of the growth curve. But this is going to take a concerted effort," McLerran said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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