Air and noise pollution - and the need to safeguard against both

Other European studies have also shown that air pollution in Malta causes the premature death of around 600 people every single year


Traffic congestion comes at a cost to business as commuters are now spending more time waiting in endless queues - bumper to bumper. A study commissioned by the University has revealed that commuters and businesses have to put up with “significant economic costs”.  

Such a study found that costs include extra time spent, apart from additional fuel costs, resultant accidents and the causes of bad health from pure air quality. These are projected to cost us a staggering €721 million by 2025. Is it no coincidence, that last year Government announced by 2025 to spend €700 million to improve the frail road infrastructure.  

But is widening of roads and building of new fly-overs a 100% solution to ease traffic congestion and curtail island emissions? Not entirely.  
With regards to noise pollution, a recent parliamentary question, saw the Minister for Home Affairs saying that the police had no equipment capable of measuring the decibel level of street noise and there was no law to regulate sound levels.  

It is true that the Muscat government has attracted private investors to pour millions so as to convert the BWSC/Delimara plant to run on LNG - previously burning heavy fuel oil to generate electricity.  

On its own, this has reduced considerably the emissions in the South where such heavy plants are located.  

Again on a strange note it is pollution, but not traffic noise, that is linked to an increased risk of having low-birth-weight babies. This overrules older studies which blamed road traffic air pollution to low birth weight babies.

Nevertheless, excessive road traffic produces noise as well as pollution which is associated with adverse health effects, such as sleep disruption, increased blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

This has been revealed by a study leader Rachel Smith at the School of Public Health of the Imperial College in London.

Back to Malta, it has joined other third world countries which suffer from pollution due to traffic density exacerbated by its pot holed village road infrastructure caused by the ever growing number of heavy construction vehicles.

Close to 380,000 ageing vehicles (almost one for each resident - mostly imported second-hand) clog the narrow streets - this is making commuting a daily nightmare as more tourists arrive.

Welcome to the streets in Istanbul. The solution is not an easy one. As stated earlier, the growing level of car emissions creates an ecosystem of a carcinogenesis cloud which is not healthy.

A bigger problem (which is often ignored by public opinion) are air pollution measurements taken in Grand Harbour. Last year, a study showed how with just three cruise ships in berth, particulate matter pollution was 50 times that expected and 10 times more that found in most traffic congested roads.  

Other European studies have also shown that air pollution in Malta causes the premature death of around 600 people every single year. 

Thank God - the IMO latest directive came to the rescue.  

By next January, it will come in force the implementation of the International Maritime Organization’s most ambitious and far-reaching regulatory amendments on low sulphur fuels used by ships. While restrictions on sulphur emissions from ships have existed for quite some time in specifically designated regions (known as emission control areas), the envisaged transition on a global scale is proving to be quite daunting.

As at January 1, 2020, the permissible sulphur content in marine fuels consumed by all ocean-going vessels will drop from the present 3.5 per cent m/m (mass by mass) to just 0.5 per cent m/m in accordance to Annex VI to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

Apart from regulatory compliance, the effectiveness of IMO 2020 will be dependent on proper monitoring and enforcement. The expected hike in the price of low sulphur fuel reflects the differential between compliant 0.5 per cent fuels and high sulphur fuels.

This price differential may tempt unscrupulous ship owners to risk non-compliance. This temptation could become a more realistic threat should the new IMO regime fail to be adequately enforced since, as an agency of the United Nations, the IMO has no authority to enforce the new limits.

Thus, enforcement will depend predominantly on flag States and Port State Control. Port States are expected to conduct initial inspections based on documents and other possible materials, including remote sensing and portable devices.  

For instance, port State control officials may need to examine the vessel’s certification such as the International Air Pollution Prevention (IAPP) Certificate as well as the copies of the bunker delivery notes for the last supplies furnished to the ship.  

Readers may question the scale of the problem. Suffice to note that around 85,000 tankers and cargo ships pass through the Sicily-Malta channel annually. When the wind is from the northwest, which is 70 per cent of the time, the pollution that comes our way on a daily basis is substantial. SOX, NOX and PM gases in the air increase human health risks, causing premature deaths from lung cancer, cardiovascular (heart) disease and lung immune system disorders.  

Air pollution causes other health problems, such as childhood asthma. On average, it is a fact that Cruise ships spend up to 12 hours in port. 

To quote a busy port, one reflects that a total of 105 cruise ships berthing in Barcelona emitted five times the amount of SOX than the city’s 559,000 passenger cars.  

In 2017, 203 cruise liners emitted 62 kilotonnes of sulphur oxide (SOX), 155 Kt of nitrogen oxide (NOX), 10 Kt of particulate matter (PM) and 10,286 Kt of carbon dioxide, while in European waters.  

Most of these emissions took place in the Mediterranean. It is often overlooked, that such cruise ships emitted 20 times more disease-causing SOX in European seas than all of Europe’s 260+ million passenger vehicles. Such alarming statistics may seem exaggerated however, empirical studies show that ship‘s fuel is less refined than that used by cars.  

Additionally, pollution from ships is airborne and therefore pollutes over a very large area.  

On the other hand, for the residents of Birzebbugia and Marsaxlokk one cannot turn a blind eye to pollution produced by ships berthed at the Freeport. These cargo ships are busy in their regular transshipment of containers (now handling over 3 million TEU’s).  

To conclude, there is also the aviation industry which joins the club as a heavy polluter. On average, 43,000 aircraft arrive and depart from Malta annually. This means that all these aircraft are landing and taking off and flying in close proximity over large tracts of Malta and Gozo.  

Thank heaven that for a start, our country can next year start to gain from the new IMO directive and the drive by government to announce its future policy concerning the importation of electric cars in a programmed drive to slowly replace existing fossil fueled cars.

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