Large ships currently use heavy fuel oil with 3.5% sulphur. This needs to go down to at least 0.5% (one seventh). The problem apparently is that reducing the toxic emissions would double the cost for ship operators. It seems that in shipping and political circles human life has a price. The estimated sixty thousand people dying worldwide from this pollution appears to be acceptable as long as we continue along the path of indiscriminate economic growth at all costs. This is all so unnecessary. We can have well-being and a happy and rewarding life without any of this.
I wonder how many direct or indirect deaths are caused in Malta by these toxic clouds. Does this matter to us? I think it matters to the people you die and to their families. We will ever know to what extent the breathing problems and complications people suffer from in Malta are caused by the level of pollution in the air we breathe?
This is not all. One can reasonable assume that these toxic clouds are also killing wildlife across the Mediterranean, especially migrating birds, as well as contributing to the acidification of the Sea and the devastation that that causes to marine life.
In December 2013 atmospheric physicist Prof. Ray Ellul was already warning us about the invisible toxic clouds emanating from the tens of thousands of large vessels travelling through the Malta-Sicily channel. “These ships are very big, anything from 10,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes,’ Prof. Ellul is talking about the 30,000 large ships his team observed passing between Malta and Sicily over a year. This shipping superhighway sees one third of the world’s traffic pass by carrying goods from Asia to Europe and back.
The problem could be massive. ‘A typical 50,000 tonner will have an engine equivalent to 85 MW,’ Malta’s two electricity plants churn out nearly 600 MW. You only need a few of these to rival the Islands’ power stations. Prof. Ellul continues, ‘this is far far worse. We are right in the middle of it and with winds from the Northwest we get it all.’ Northwest winds blow 70% of the time over Malta and Gozo, which means that around two thirds of the time the pollutants streaming out of these ships are travelling over Malta. Even in Gozo, where traffic is less intense, air quality is being affected.”
Alexander Smyth, who is a research officer in Prof. Ellul’s team said in 2013 “The most worrying pollutant he saw was Vanadium. Vanadium is a toxic metal. When inhaled, ‘it can penetrate to the alveoli of the lungs and cause cancer, a worst case scenario,’ outlined Alexander. It can also cause respiratory and developmental problems — none are good news.”
Ship emissions more toxic than 30 Marsa power stations, scientist warns
‘It’s like having a power station sailing just past the island every few minutes’
The huge ships sailing or bunkering just off Malta generate more toxic emissions than the equivalent of 30 Marsa power stations – and winds regularly blow the fumes all over the island, a senior scientist has warned.
Raymond Ellul, a geosciences professor at the University of Malta, has been studying ship emissions in the central Mediterranean from an isolated lighthouse-turned-lab on the coast of Gozo coast since the mid-1990s.The Giordan lighthouse, built in the 1840s, houses equipment used to monitor shipping emissions in the central Mediterranean. Photos: Jonathan Borg
He told The Sunday Times of Malta a staggering 85,000 tankers and other gigantic ships sail through the waters between Malta and Sicily annually, making this one of the busiest shipping regions in the world.
The monitoring of maritime traffic shows that approximately 200 ships sail by the island every day, with a collective engine capacity equal to around 33 of the now-defunct Marsa power stations.
“This is literally like having a power station sailing just past the island every few minutes, perhaps worse,” he said, his finger following the dramatic up-and-down peaks on his emissions readings.
Prof. Ellul was quick to add that the island’s old power stations, Marsa and BWSC – once dubbed a “cancer factory” – were actually far cleaner than the ships just off the coast.
The old power stations, he said, had been kitted out with emissions-reducing technology over the years – something few shipping companies splurged for.
The scientist lamented that due to lax shipping regulations in the Mediterranean, shipping vessels were still allowed to run on pollution-rich heavy fuel oil – the carcenogenic residue that refineries are left with after making much cleaner fuels such as marine diesel.
“Not long ago I had Cabinet ministers sat right here in my office. I told them about these findings, and that it was time to lobby for change,” Prof. Ellul said.
The change the professor is calling for is that the dense shipping region around Malta be made into what is known as a controlled emissions area, like the North and Baltic Seas – where ships are not allowed to run on heavy polluters like HFO.
Prof. Ellul’s call to action comes after The Sunday Times of Malta reported earlier this month on the €24 million annual health bill that taxpayers are footing as a result of the invisible cloud of toxins coming from ships berthed in the Grand Harbour.
According to a shelved government report seen by this newspaper, the pollution, known as particulate matter, not only damages people’s health, but also crops. It even has an impact on architectural heritage.
The chemicals coming from ships in the Grand Harbour, mostly cruise liners, are now being studied by the whistleblower behind the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Axel Friedrich.
Mr Friedrcih, a former German environmental regulator, has found that the air around Valletta is reaching toxic levels 10 times higher than the island’s most congested roads.
Cruise ships ‘just a small bit’ of problem
It turns out, however, that cruise ships only account for around one per cent of the shipping emissions in the waters just off Malta, with tankers and cargo ships coughing out the largest clouds of killer chemicals.
Pointing to a tiny sliver on a pie chart, Prof. Ellul said: “That, just that small bit there, represents the emissions coming from cruise ships. All the rest comes from tankers and cargo ships”.
Raymond Ellul has been studying them since the 1990s
The veteran scientist, who has worked with Nobel Prize winners, said most Maltese were blissfully unaware of the pollution coming from the shipping industry.
“Put it this way – if you were concerned about air pollution, you probably wouldn’t want to buy a house along a busy road, would you?”
“Well, Malta is on a marine traffic highway – one of the busiest in the world – and the bulk of these ships are using highly polluting fuel, with the exhaust spreading all over the island,” he said.
According to the European Environment Agency, 60,000 people die every year as a result of shipping emissions.
Air pollution in Malta has long been on the agenda, as the island continues to have some of the worst air in Europe. Earlier this year the European Environment Agency found only the Bulgarians, Poles and Greeks breathed dirtier air than the Maltese.