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How 16 Ships Pollute as Much as All of World's Cars

Legislation geared towards cleaning up our environment often focuses on emissions from cars and businesses. But perhaps the focus should be on international waters, where large ships are the worst polluters in the world. So bad, in fact, that just 16 of these super ships throw more sulphur into the air than all of the world's cars combined.

A report in Britain's Daily Mail says the problem is low-quality fuel the ships use:

Unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

There are an estimated 100,000 commercial ships at sea, importing and exporting goods all over the world. Many of them burn marine heavy fuel, or "bunker fuel", which, in addition to harming the environment, leaves behind a trail of potentially lethal chemicals -- sulphur and smoke that have been linked to breathing problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease.

James Corbett of the University of Delaware is an authority on ship emissions. He calculates a worldwide death toll of about 64,000 a year. He expects that figure to rise to 87,000 deaths a year by 2012.

A United Nations body that regulates world shipping -- the London-based International Maritime Organization -- has long resisted calls to clean up the shipping industry. IMO rules allow ships to burn fuel containing up to 4.5 per cent sulphur. That is 4,500 times more than is allowed in car fuel in the European Union. The sulphur comes out of ship smokestacks as tiny particles, and it is these that get deep into lungs.

Thanks to the IMO’s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year – the same as 50 million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year. With an estimated 800 million cars driving around the planet, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars.

The IMO is finally doing something, saying shipping fuel should not contain more than 3.5 per cent sulphur by 2012 and eventually must come down to 0.5 per cent. This lower figure could cut the death toll in half, says Corbett.

Robert Pedersen of shipping giant Maersk said, "The sulphur content varies according to where you get your fuel. Our average sulphur content is, I believe, 2.5 per cent. It’s rather rare you get anything close to 4.5 per cent."

He added that "the sulphur issue is one for the whole industry" and that there would be a "huge cost implication" to switch to cleaner fuel.

A "huge cost implication" that some say could save lives and go a long way in cleaning up our environment.


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