Diesel Pollution

Diesel Exhaust in Chicago   |   Diesel Basics   |   Health Impacts

Environmental Impacts   |   Diesel Pollution Standards

Technology Solutions   |   What ELPC is Doing


Diesel Exhaust in Chicago

Diesel-USEPApicChicago is a transportation and economic hub where trains, trucks, boats and heavy construction equipment are highly concentrated. These vehicles’ engines burn diesel, which pollutes nearby highways, railyards, ports, intermodal facilities and construction sites. Commuters and residents who live near areas with high concentrations of diesel pollution are most at risk of exposure — but, as an air pollutant, diesel exhaust knows no boundaries and poses risks for all Chicagoans.

ELPC analyzed traffic, construction and infrastructure data to identify areas of the city that may have higher rates of diesel activity and pollution. Intermodal facilities, major roads and highways, heavy commercial traffic, high congestion areas, construction zones and vulnerable populations were all considered. The result are maps that demonstrate potential “hot spots” where high diesel activity and vulnerable populations overlap. In addition to this data-mapping analysis, click here to learn more about ELPC’s work to reduce diesel pollution in Chicago.

 (Click to enlarge.)

By Neighborhood

High Diesel Activity Areas by Chicago Neighborhood

By Ward

High Diesel Activity Areas by Chicago Ward


Diesel Basics

Diesel-CTApicDiesel exhaust is a form of air pollution made of heavy metals, toxic gases and tiny particles. Microscopic carbon soot particles are released by diesel engines into the exhaust pipe, absorbing metals and toxic gases and releasing soot into the air. Diesel exhaust is a complex mixture composed of thousands of substances, including over 40 toxic air pollutants. The major components of diesel exhaust include:

  • Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is a mixture of tiny airborne particles that are 1/30th the width of a human hair.
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are gases that react in the atmosphere to form urban smog, ground level ozone pollution.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that have a high-vapor pressure. They mix with NOx to create urban smog and can have long-lasting health impacts.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, causing global warming.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless and tasteless toxic gas.
  • Hydrocarbons (HC) are simple compounds made of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Found in petroleum and diesel oil, once released into the environment HCs can be toxic for human consumption.
  • Diesel exhaust also contains hundreds of other chemicals including cancer-causing substances such as formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene.


Health Impacts

Diesel-MikeLichtComposed of toxic gases, heavy metals and microscopic particles that become lodged in the lungs, diesel exhaust poses serious health risks to Chicagoans.  Several studies have shown that diesel exhaust severely impacts public health, linking diesel pollution to premature death, cancer, heart disease, neurological problems and respiratory illness.

Cardiovascular & Respiratory Health: Particle pollution, one of the major components of diesel exhaust, is a deadly threat to cardiovascular and respiratory health. These tiny airborne particles are less than 1/30th the width of a human hair. When humans breathe in particle pollution, the ultrafine and sharp edged particles enter the respiratory system and affect the lungs, triggering asthma attacks.

Once in the lungs, the tiny size and irregular shape of the particles allow them to cross from the lungs into the cardiovascular system. This can lead to inflammation of tissues in the heart and can cause premature death, heart attacks and strokes. According to the Respiratory Health Association, diesel pollution leads to over 20,000 asthma attacks, 680 heart attacks and about 570 premature deaths in Illinois each year. Click here for a map of asthma prevalence in Chicago.

Air Action Alert days are called when the EPA measures an Air Quality Index (AQI) with a concentration of particle pollution or ground-level ozone that threatens human health, deeming the air quality Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy or Very Unhealthy. On days that the AQI is deemed Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, it is recommended that children, older adults, people who are active outdoors and those with lung disease reduce outdoor activity. On Unhealthy days, it is recommended that everyone limit outdoor activity. In Cook County during the year 2012, there were 32 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups days and 7 Unhealthy air quality days.

Cancer Risk: Diesel exhaust is also a known carcinogen, containing several cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde, arsenic and mercury, among others. The World Health Organization has labeled diesel pollution a carcinogen and more than 30 studies have linked diesel exhaust to lung cancer. According to the Clean Air Task Force, the cancer risk for diesel pollution is 3 times higher than that of all other air toxics tracked by the EPA combined.

The Clean Air Task Force offers a search tool for lifetime diesel soot cancer risk by county to determine the impact of diesel exhaust on cancer risk in one’s neighborhood. In Cook County, the lifetime diesel soot cancer risk is 303 times greater than EPA’s acceptable cancer level of 1 in a million.

Neurological Impacts:  For expectant mothers, exposure to diesel exhaust has been linked to prenatal autism development. In a 2013 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, it was found that pregnant women who were exposed to high concentrations of diesel pollution were up to twice as likely to give birth to an autistic child.


Environmental Impacts

Diesel pollution harms the environment, degrades air quality and contributes to global warming. Diesel engines contaminate Chicago’s air with dangerous particle pollution and contribute to global warming pollution.

Chicago Air Quality: Diesel pollution is the primary cause of particle and ozone pollution in Chicago. Chicago air quality currently exceeds the safe levels of particle and ground-level ozone pollution designated by the EPA, falling into non-attainment of the EPA’s clean air standards.

Climate Impacts: Diesel engines emit a form of soot pollution known as black carbon, the second leading contributor to climate change. Because of its dark color, black carbon counteracts the reflectivity of the earth’s surface and absorbs the sun’s energy, causing warming of the atmosphere.  In fact, one quarter of the world’s black carbon pollution comes from diesel exhaust. With concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeding 400 parts per million, a level considered unsafe by climate scientists, global warming is an increasingly pressing concern.



Diesel Pollution Standards

Since 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a number of programs to protect the public from the health impacts of harmful diesel pollution. Federal standards require new diesel engines to utilize pollution-control technology that can reduce pollution by up to 90 percent — but because diesel engines can last 30 to 40 years, the full health benefits of current regulations are not expected to be seen until 2030. The federal government has also funded thousands of voluntary diesel engine retrofits, but the EPA estimates there were still 11 million diesel vehicles without diesel pollution controls as of 2007.

Once enacted, diesel standards are expected to result in health benefits that far exceed the costs of implementation. For example, the on-road diesel standards (mostly for heavy-duty diesel trucks) will annually prevent: 2.6 million tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions; 110,000 tons of soot or particulate matter; 8,300 premature deaths; 5,500 cases of chronic bronchitis and 17,600 cases of acute bronchitis in children; 360,000 asthma attacks and 386,000 cases of respiratory symptoms in asthmatic children; 1.5 million lost work days; 7,100 hospital visits; and 2,400 emergency room visits for asthma.


Technology Solutions

Diesel-MassDeptEnviroProtectionWhile unfiltered diesel pollution threatens the health of Chicagoans and exacerbates global warming, the good news is that technology exists to reduce diesel pollution up to 90 percent.

Here in Illinois, stronger diesel emissions controls would provide jobs in installation and manufacturing for the 22 construction equipment manufacturers located in the state. In fact, diesel emissions reductions technology could be manufactured right here in Chicagoland, with diesel retrofit manufacturers headquartered in Naperville and Warrenville.

There are several types of diesel emissions control technology, ranging in cost and effectiveness of emissions reductions. The following table briefly describes the three levels of diesel emissions technology.

Technology Pollution reduction Cost
Level 3: Diesel particulate filter 60-90% $5,000-$10,000
Level 2: Flow through or partial filter 50-75% $5,000-$6,000
Level 1: Diesel oxidation catalyst 20-50% $1,000-$2,000

For more information and to find verified emissions control technologies, see the EPA’s clean diesel technologies.


What ELPC is Doing

In addition to our data-mapping analysis, ELPC is working to reduce diesel pollution from intermodal yards, where goods are transferred between diesel trucks and freight trains. Our current focus is Chicago’s Englewood community, where Norfolk Southern is planning to expand its 47th Street Rail Yard by 57%. This expansion will cause a significant increase in truck traffic in and out of the yard, involve older locomotives that tend to idle for long periods of time, convert 84 acres of residential and green space into industrial use, and lead to a significant uptick in diesel soot pollution in an area that already suffers from poor air quality and high asthma rates.

Our work involves concurrent scientific analysis, community organizing, policy advocacy and legal strategy in collaboration with local community, environmental and public health groups, as well as City of Chicago officials and Norfolk Southern representatives. Working together, we hope to generate a list of voluntary steps that companies, industries and governments can take to lesson diesel pollution.

Diesel pollution at intermodal yards may be addressed, in particular, by retrofitting older trucks under the company’s control; constructing any new additions to a rail yard using “clean construction” equipment and techniques; managing traffic inside the yard and on surrounding roadways; monitoring the air quality in and around the yard; and using the best-available pollution-control technology on locomotives and rail yard equipment.

In addition to these public health and air quality concerns, ELPC is working with Sustainable Englewood Initiatives and the Northwestern Legal Clinic to negotiate a fair deal on quality-of-life issues related to noise, road conditions, local economic development and open space. Recent media related to our work can be found here.