April 13, 2024
Bunker Fuel

The Damaging Effects of Bunker Fuel

The shipping industry relies heavily on bunker fuel to power cargo ships and tankers that transport goods across the world’s oceans. However, bunker fuel is extremely polluting and its widespread usage is having severe negative impacts on the environment and public health.

What is Bunker Fuel?

Bunker Fuel, also known as fuel oil or heavy fuel oil, refers to extremely thick and viscous fuel oils that are remnants from the petroleum industry’s refining processes. It is composed of tar-like fuel residues left over after all lighter hydrocarbons have been extracted. Shipping is one of the few industrial sectors that still uses bunker fuel due to its low cost compared to other fuels. However, bunker fuel is filled with impurities and toxic chemicals like sulfur, heavy metals, and carbon residues. It is essentially the dirtiest, lowest quality fuel available.

Air Pollution from Bunker Fuel Emissions

The combustion of bunker fuel emits a wide range of harmful pollutants into the air, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and carbon dioxide. Shipping accounts for 2-3% of global carbon emissions but emits significantly higher levels of sulfur and nitrogen oxides compared to other modes of transportation. Sulfur oxides are known to cause respiratory illnesses while nitrogen oxides contribute to smog and acid rain formation. Particulate matter is especially problematic as the smallest particles can lodge deep into lungs and enter the bloodstream, exacerbating cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. According to the International Maritime Organization, air pollution from ships may cause up to 400,000 premature deaths per year globally from cardiorespiratory disease and lung cancer. Coastal communities near busy shipping lanes tend to be most severely impacted.

Pollution of Oceans and Waterways

In addition to polluting the air, bunker fuel also contaminates the oceans when illegal discharges or accidental spills occur from tankers and cargo ships. Bunker fuel spills have devastating effects on marine ecosystems as its heavy pollution persists in water and sediments for decades. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska is one of the most infamous examples, killing thousands of sea otters, birds and other wildlife. Even legal discharges of wastewater and sludge from bunker fuel use introduce toxic residues into the oceans that accumulate in marine life and enter the food chain. This poses serious threats to fisheries, coral reefs and other aquatic environments that coastal economies rely on. Accidental bunker fuel spills also regularly contaminate beaches, forcing temporary closures that hurt local tourism.

Health Hazards for Seafarers

The hazardous composition of bunker fuel also endangers the health of ship crews who must handle and consume it. Inhalation of toxic bunker fuel fumes and particulate matter on ships has been linked to higher cancer risks for seafarers. Studies have found elevated rates of lung cancer among engine room workers due to continuous exposure below decks. Digestion of contaminated food or water onboard can also cause long term health issues. International labor organizations have urged more stringent protections for crews, but working conditions remain dangerous on many older vessels still burning bunker fuel. The ubiquity of this dirty fuel at sea creates widespread occupational hazards that will persist without change.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it