Passengers on a cruise ship could be inhaling “60 times higher concentrations of harmful air pollutants ” than they would in natural air settings, Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU), a German environmental association, has warned.
The air quality on board a cruise ship just after it left Marseille, measured by a journalist for the French documentary television series Thalassa and analysed by NABU, revealed that at peak levels, the concentration of harmful ultra-fine particles was up to 200 times higher than it would be in natural fresh air surroundings and 20 times worse than in the busy city centres of some port cities, including Venice, Marseille, Hamburg and Barcelona, with heavy traffic.
“The longest recording was conducted for a time period of almost 50 minutes where an average of 60,000 particles per cubic centimeter of air were documented. As a comparison: a fresh sea breeze at that altitude should usually be at around 1,000 – 2,000 particles at maximum. So passengers inhaled 60 times higher concentrations of harmful air pollutants,” Daniel Rieger, a transport policy officer and researcher for NABU who analysed the data told Telegraph Travel.
Measurements were taken at various spots on the ship and for this particular sample, the sun deck and jogging lane on the top deck were found to be most affected by pollution. “But of course this can vary along with the wind and weather conditions. So potentially every part of the ship can be affected significantly,” Mr Rieger said.
For this reason, the German Lung Association and the Pneumologists Association have warned passengers against staying on deck or inhaling ships’ exhaust gases as this could cause acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) if you suffer from lung diseases, Mr Rieger said.
“Moreover they warn that ultra-fine particles are very dangerous, lead to lung diseases, heart attacks, strokes and are also linked to diabetes and cause deterioration for asthma and COPD patients,” he added.
In addition to fine dust and soot from funnels on cruise ships, passengers are exposed to harmful substances such as nitrogen oxides and heavy metals emitted by the combustion of marine diesel fuel and heavy oil. Diesel exhaust has been classified to be just as carcinogenic as asbestos by the World Health Organisation in 2012, and exposure to it increases your risk of getting lung cancer.
“The passengers can only smell or see the particles before they get mixed up with the ambient air,” Mr Rieger told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) following the recent air quality tests.
He warned that the latest results are most likely indicative of the poor air quality on nearly all cruise ships.
“They could have done the air tests on almost any cruise ship in the world while the results would have been the same. This is due to low quality fuels (mainly heavy fuel oil – HFO) and the fact that none of the ships has a particulate filter. And as a consequence air pollutant emissions are massive,” he told Telegraph Travel.
But Helge Grammerstorf, the German national director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and a former ship captain and ship broker, denied the validity of the measurements, arguing that a more systematic test over a longer period of time is required rather than the recent selective sample of measurements taken.
“We don’t know these measurements. The claim is completely unsubstantiated,” he told Hamburger Abendblatt, a German daily newspaper.
CLIA Europe’s director of public affairs, Martyn Griffiths, agreed, saying: “It is very unfortunate that the actual data of those tests is not available as those small particles can be man-made or natural and for instance will include sea salt when tests are performed at sea.”
“When the actual content of particles is not specified, it is not possible to compare air quality to other cases on land which have very different circumstances and no analysis of their breakdown for comparison,” he added.
The major contributors to poor air quality on board cruise ships are “bad fuel quality and a lack of exhaust gas abatement systems”, Mr Rieger told Telegraph Travel.
It wouldn’t be difficult for cruise ships to help air quality and improvements could be made with “a switch to better fuel, ideally road diesel or liquid natural gas, as well as the compulsory installation of particulate filters and nitrogen catalysts,” he told Telegraph Travel.
But four out of five ships were found to not be equipped with any exhaust gas cleaning systems or only equipped with one that meets the lowest legal standard for northern Europe, which only reduces sulfur oxide emissions, DW reports.
But according to Mr Griffiths, Europe already has 75 cruise ships equipped with emission reducing technologies, including 23 soot particle filters. “Worldwide this amounts to approximately one third of cruise ships. As these types of technologies continue to evolve and improve, we expect these to be fitted on more ships in the future,” he told Telegraph Travel.
“The cruise industry invested $1 billion in new technologies and cleaner fuels to reduce ship air emissions. Billions are being invested in the development of advanced liquefied natural gas (LNG)-fuelled cruise ships that will have lower emissions and higher energy efficiency,” he added.
Currently there are no nitrogen emission control areas (NECA) in European waters, so vessels only need to comply with the regulations of the sulfur emission control areas (SECA) by using a lower sulphur content diesel and the older vessels are not so clean when it comes to emissions, Ralph Hardwick, a spokesperson from Clean Air London, told Telegraph Travel.
“But even within a sulphur emission control area, the sulphur content should not exceed 0.1 per cent; which is still 100 times the sulphur found in road diesel fuel. Unfortunately no official body is ensuring compliance of this regulation,” he added.
All cruise ships, however, are said to comply with the applicable air emission standards and “regularly go beyond current requirements”, according to Mr Griffiths.
“All ships, including cruise ships regularly undergo inspections by Port State Control of the port visited and inspections by their flag-state. Among the elements inspected are the emission levels of the engines and generators,” he told Telegraph Travel.
Although systems that reduce particle and nitrogen oxide emissions have been available on the market for years, cruise companies have been unwilling to install these mechanisms, which require more expensive types of fuel to operate, the NABU says.
Cruise lines “pay huge sums to improve entertainment and gastronomical services on board, but save as much as they can when it comes to environmental protection,” Leif Miller, NABU manager told DW.
“The question is whether the industry deliberately looks the other way,” Dietmar Oellinger, NABU’s transport expert, told DW.
“We should ask how much more proof the industry needs before they finally take action,” he said.
NABU will be conducting air quality checks on other cruise ships in the future, Mr Rieger added, declining to go into any more detail.
The environmental group has previously measured the concentration of ultra-fine dust particles in the air around cruise ships in the harbours of Hamburg, Venice and the north-eastern German city of Rostock-Warnemünde, but was not allowed to take any measurements on board the cruise ships in those areas, DW reports.
Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruises and Princess Cruises have yet to respond to Telegraph Travel’s request for a comment on whether cruise ships undergo regular on-board air quality checks, and what measures cruise lines have, or will be taking to improve and protect the air quality on board their ships.
A separate report last year by NABU claimed that European cruise ships are belching out 3,500 times more sulphur dioxide than land-based vehicles, thus contributing to a range of issues including climate change, air pollution and lung problems.
Last December, Princess Cruises, one of 10 brands owned by the world’s largest cruise holiday company, was ordered to pay a $40 million (£32 million) fine for illegally dumping thousands of gallons of oil and waste off the UK coast.
Prosecutors said the payment represents the largest penalty imposed on any firm for deliberate pollution by a ship at sea. Parent company Carnival has also agreed to submit 78 cruise ships across its brands to a five-year environmental compliance programme as part of the plea agreement.