"Diesel exhaust may be the single most severe air-pollution threat to people's health here in Pittsburgh," says Rachel Filippini, executive director of the local Group Against Smog and Pollution.
To validate her claim, Filippini points to a new report from the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based nonprofit, which estimates that particles in diesel exhaust from cars, buses and other motor vehicles cuts short the lives of more than 200 Pittsburghers each year. It also claims that diesel exhaust causes more than 300 heart attacks and 3,300 asthma attacks in the city annually.
Pittsburgh ranks ninth in the report's list of metropolitan areas affected by diesel exhaust, thanks in particular to tugs with barges and other diesel-powered, commercial watercraft, Filippini says.
The report relies on a wide range of past studies to calculate diesel exposure; Filipinni calls it a "landmark." Allen Schaefer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, calls it "a bit extreme.
"Much of this [report] is not anything new," says Schaefer, whose auto and fuel industry group is researching cleaner fuels and engines. He claims that the Clean Air Task Force "sewed together" several previously existing reports into an ominous-seeming package to raise alarm. In some cases, he says, they used out-of-date statistics and studies, disregarding the numerous improvements the automotive industry has made in diesel cleanliness in the past few years.
He is also skeptical of the report's estimated calculation that more than 200 Pittsburghers and 21,000 Americans have died prematurely due to diesel engines, since such figures are not tabulations based on death certificates. He added that his group agrees with most of the report's recommendations: more federal funding for research into cleaner energy, more stringent standards for new diesel vehicles, and filters for older vehicles.
GASP's Filippini stands by the report, saying the use of scientific models to calculate deaths caused by pollution is standard for the Environmental Protection Agency.
"It just wouldn't be feasible to find anything on a death certificate," she says.
She also acknowledges that the report uses a lot of older information, but believes the report is still valuable.
"We've known about the dangers of diesel exhaust for years," she concludes. "But this report is the first comprehensive study that ties everything together and calculates all of the asthma and premature death risks of [diesel] particles."