OAKLAND, Calif. – Truck drivers at the Port of Oakland are breathing dangerous levels of diesel soot, says a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The first-ever study to measure the level of diesel soot truck drivers breathe shows soot levels in the truck cabs are at least 10 times higher than those in a residential neighborhood several miles away.

The amount of diesel soot inside the truck cabs “was high enough to increase health risks by up to 2,600 excess cancers per million drivers,” the report said. “Although we were unable to quantify them, the non-cancer health risks, such as premature death, are likely to be even greater.”

The conclusions of the study, “Driving on Fumes: Truck drivers face elevated health risks from diesel pollution,” were revealed at a press conference here on Dec. 4.

“The findings were quite clear,” Diane Bailey, a scientist with NRDC and an author of the report, told reporters. “Driving a truck in port service is really hazardous to your health. But much can be done to prevent this unnecessary exposure and sickness.”

For the study, a monitor was placed in the cabs of seven different trucks, varying in age from one to 26 years, during a total of nine work shifts. A Global Positioning Device recorded the trucks’ routes, and an observer accompanied three of the shifts.

Although the greatly increased risks of respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and cancer faced by residents near the port has been repeatedly documented, drivers’ exposure had not been studied before.

The trucking firms and their customers, among them Target, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, are to blame, said Doug Bloch, spokesperson for the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports.

Bloch pointed out that some 1,500 truck drivers serving the Port of Oakland work 11 to 14 hours a day, several hours of which are unpaid while they wait in line to pick up a container. As independent contractors, Bloch said, the drivers earn as little as $8 an hour, and have no health insurance.

The trucking firms and their customers “wipe their hands of responsibility for the trucks and the pollution,” Bloch added. Meanwhile, drivers can barely afford to raise a family, let alone buy a clean emission truck.

“We are not going to be able to fix this until we end the practice of independent contracting and shift some of the costs onto the people whose goods these drivers are moving,” Bloch said. “We’re asking the trucking companies to operate clean emission trucks and to hire the drivers as employees.”

Bloch said the port can do this through concession agreements similar to those with other service providers. Bloch added that his coalition is working on the issue with ports around the country.

Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, and Wafaa Aborashed, executive director of Healthy San Leandro, highlighted the serious health and environmental hazards the trucks also pose to residents of neighborhoods near the port and along Interstate 880 serving the facility.

“The issues truck drivers face are the same issues facing the people who live in West Oakland,” said Gordon, who lives in the neighborhood and herself suffers from asthma.

“If they are breathing diesel particulates in the trucks, and it is more concentrated there than in our homes,” she said, “we are all getting sick.

“With new technology, new regulations and new collaborative efforts,” Gordon added, “we can make some changes. We have to join hands together and make these changes.”

Participants at the press conference stressed the importance of the California Air Resources Board’s new port truck regulation, passed by the Board on Dec. 7.

The new rule requires that trucks cut diesel emissions by 85 percent by 2014, and that all trucks manufactured before 1994 must be replaced by the end of 2009. Observers warn, however, that the trucking industry, which opposes the rule, may challenge it in court.

mbechtel @pww.org