Study pinpoints Bay Area cancer risk hot spots

Bay Area residents will soon be able to see where diesel-related air pollution is the worst — and understand the health risks associated with living in those areas.

In the Bay Area, 80 percent of air-pollution cancer risk comes from diesel fumes; freight trucks, ships and trains are significant sources of diesel emissions, according to the BayArea Air Quality Management District.

The district is currently studying where those emissions are worst, and plans to study the health risks — from cancer to asthma — of constant exposure.

Preliminary maps show hot spots — places with elevated levels of diesel fumes and acrolein, a pollutant that comes from burning fossil fuels — in northeastern San Francisco, western Alameda County and parts of Santa Clara County. Two spots along Highway 101 in San Mateo County — one in San Mateo and one in Redwood City — show high levels of diesel-related air pollution.

“This kind of particulate matter exacerbates heart and lung conditions,” said John Millett, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. “We’ve seen a correlation between [these emissions] and things like emergency-room visits and heart attacks.”

While the district’s Community Air Risk Evaluation study, released this month, ultimately aims to zero in on the health risks associated with living in a diesel-polluted environment, the district only has regulatory control over stationary sources, such as industrial sites, according to spokeswoman Karen Schkolnick.

However, the EPA has enacted new rules under the Clean Air Act that have converted all of California’s diesel fuels to low-emissions varieties as of this year. Nationwide, all diesel engines must be low emission and use low-emission fuels by 2010, according to Margo Perez-Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

That’s good news for residents — particularly children and seniors — living in high-pollution areas, said Andy Katz, director of air quality for Breathe California.

“In southeast San Francisco or West Oakland, asthma rates are double what they are in the general population,” Katz said.

Reducing highway diesel alone is expected to eliminate 8,300 premature deaths, 9,500 hospitalizations and1.5 million lost workdays by 2030, Millett said. More could be spared by reducing emissions from trains and ships.

The new rules have been costly for the freight industry, adding an additional $10,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a $200,000 engine, according to Joe Sucheecki, spokesman with the Engine Manufacturers Association.

“We’ve always been supportive of new standards as long as they’re reasonable and we have enough time to meet them,” Sucheecki said. “We believe we can make these standards.”

bwinegarner@examiner.com  

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