Fit engine scrubbers to save 60,000 lives a year, say researchers

Athens: Installing scrubbers to vessels’ exhaust funnels could help save some of the 60,000 lives lost every year to lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases caused by emissions from ships, new research suggests.

Researchers from Germany’s University of Rostock and environmental research centre Helmholzzentrum Munich have just published a new paper (see below) that establishes a close link between shipping exhaust emissions and serious diseases.

Heavy metals, hydrocarbons, sulphur dioxide and carcinogenic particulate matter (PM) are emitted from ships when vessels burn conventional heavy fuel oil (HFO) or diesel.

“Despite a lower content of known toxic compounds, combustion particles from the clean shipping fuel DF [diesel fuel] influenced several essential pathways of lung cell metabolism more strongly than particles from the unrefined fuel HFO,” the study says.

“This might be attributable to a higher soot content in DF. Thus the role of diesel soot, which is a known carcinogen in acute air pollution-induced health effects should be further investigated. For the use of HFO and DF we recommend a reduction of carbonaceous soot in the ship emissions by implementation of filtration devices.”

Shipping emits around half of all PM-related air pollution in coastal areas, rivers and ports, making the health of people in coastal areas most at risk, the study found.

Health conditions caused by shipping emissions costs European health services an estimated €58bn each year. The implementation of Europe’s new sulphur emissions control area (SECA), which became effective on January 1 this year, could save the continent’s health services up to €23bn, according to Germany-based campaign group Transport & Environment.

“We need meaningful measures to incentivise the uptake of cleaner marine fuels as a stepping stone towards cleaning up the sector,” said Sotiris Raptis, clean shipping officer at Transport & Environment.

The research paper, titled ‘Particulate Matter from Both Heavy Fuel Oil and Diesel Fuel Shipping Emissions Show Strong Biological Effects on Human Lung Cells at Realistic and Comparable In Vitro Exposure Conditions’, can be accessed here.

Holly Birkett

Holly is Splash's Online Editor and correspondent for the UK and Mediterranean. She has been a maritime journalist since 2010, and has written for and edited several trade publications. She is currently studying for membership of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers. In 2013, Holly won the Seahorse Club's Social Media Journalist of the Year award. She is currently based in London.


  1. Since my first ship in the late 50’s we were always instructed to achieve best possible combustion practice even when we had fuel that would not have been out of place in a road laying machine. Step forward 60 years and now shipping is the evil spreader of lung disease and other carcinogenic problems and the blame goes straight to the ships fuel. Modern worlds sitting in comfortable offices with all the comforts desired must remember that most of their comfort came by ship and did not materialise from a cloud at some command from a magician. Shipping companies are under intense pressures to try and do the impossible with laws and rules put into effect by those who at times have never sailed a ship or dealt with the daily problems faced by the engineers on board. The more regulation put into place the higher the cost of living will become for the comfortable mandarins in the so called civilised world. Politicians have had their day of blaming all the pollution on motor cars so they are stepping up a niche to blame diesel fuel used by ships. The politicians throughout Scandinavia/Europe/USA all urged us to stop driving petrol cars and switch to cheaper diesel powered cars, what a con that was as now they blame the particulates in diesel powered vehicles for pollution world wide and increase the tax on diesel to make it more expensive for those who believed politicians. In a perfect world we should be able to have motive power from water with no atmospheric pollution however even with the Nirvana of the ultimate fuel researchers would prove it was creating a carcinogenic mist. !! In today’s world the struggle of the likes of WW2 where only ships fed and kept democracies alive is forgotten, merchant navies had a terrible death toll keeping the West free and fed.

  2. The rising awareness of particulate damage to health is of prime concern to us all. The comment that we need world shipping to deliver the goods we all need is also well made.
    Having searched the internet, thank God that there is a company that will improve the situation vastly. Quadrise fuels has developed an emulsion fuel that not only replaces the need to “cut” shipping’s HFO fuel with costly diesel, but also achieves a much more complete burn of the fuel reducing those noxious particulates.
    It appears they are teamed up with major players, such as Maersk shipping and Saudi Aramco. Both of these companies are giants in their respective fields.

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