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ULSD - Diesel Exhaust Health

Diesel exhaust is associated with a number of health impacts. Studies in urban areas, and on workers occupationally exposed to diesel, found a number of health impacts from exposure. Shorter term exposure leads to eye, throat, and lung irritation, exacerbation of an existing lung condition like asthma, cough and increased phlegm, headaches, lightheadedness, and nausea. Longer term exposures may increase your risk of lung cancer.

In DEC's outreach efforts, it was clear to people if their fuel costs for ultra-low sulfur diesel would increase, would it be worth it? Would there be an improvement in health? This question started DEC staff thinking about the possibility of a health study. Are there any reasons to think pulmonary health in rural Alaska might be worse than elsewhere? Did we have monitoring data suggesting a high concentration of pollutant in the air? Does any existing health data suggest a problem? What confounding pollutants, like gasoline exhaust, open burning, cigarettes, or mold, would overwhelm a detectable health impact from diesel exhaust?

There is evidence lung health in rural Alaska is worse than expected. Asthma is one of the few medical conditions we know is not improving for Alaska natives. Limited studies have recorded asthma rates slightly higher than national averages. We do not have much monitoring data for fine particulate (PM2.5), a primary component of diesel exhaust. A health study is useful as it requires better data on asthma rates and air quality monitoring.

The air quality benefits of the proposed federal rules will not be realized for decades. Mobile sources only use a small fraction of diesel fuel distributed to rural Alaska. Stationary sources use a much larger fraction of fuel; however, cleaning up stationary sources relies on engine turnover with newer engines being equipped with post-combustion pollution controls. Old engines may operate for decades after the federal rules go into effect. A successful health study could help determine whether or not ADEC should expedite a transition to ULSD sooner than the federal timeline requirement.

DEC formed a partnership with the University of Alaska’s Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies and with the Division of Epidemiology of the Alaska Native Health Board (ANHB). Over time, ANHB’s participation ended as a result of organizational changes. DEC has encouraged the involvement of the Department of Health and Social Services as well. An EPA workgroup could not recommend a study design without baseline monitoring or health data. The group disbanded with an agreement that more data was needed. The need for additional data has led to the development of a pilot study.

The pilot study has been completed. During the pilot study, DEC conducted ambient air monitoring and UAA collected health and indoor air quality data. See complete report: Rural Alaska Diesel Exhaust Health Impact Study (PDF 867K)

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