News From Terre Haute, Indiana


September 9, 2012

Your Green Valley: Difficult to conclude PM emitted from diesel event harmful to health

The city of Los Angeles, Calif., has a certain air to it when you get near the city. You can actually see a haze, much of which can be attributed to air pollution by vehicles.

I was rekindled with my memory of living in Los Angeles when I drove south on U.S. 41 near the Scheid Diesel Extravaganza event. It was a parade of trucks “rolling coal,” a term used to describe when a diesel engine is blowing a thick cloud of black smoke.

“What you are seeing is particulate matter. PM 2.5 is really not visable when it is emitted, so it could be some carbon or unburt fuel coming out of the tailpipe,” IDEM Public Information Officer Robert Elstro said.

Health effects

IDEM says PM 2.5 is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. Because of its small size, fine particulate matter can be deposited deep in the lungs where it can cause health problems. Studies have shown an association between particulate matter and premature mortality from respiratory and cardiovascular disease and increased incidence of respiratory illness, particularly in children and the elderly. For adults with heart or lung conditions, exposure to fine particulate matter can cause more illness, and in some cases premature death. More than 90 percent of the particulates found in diesel exhaust are fine particles.

“Diesel exhaust does have a lot of chemicals that can affect health,” Elstro said.

The health hazard conclusions are based on exposure to exhaust from diesel engines built prior to the mid-1990s and modified diesel engines, like the ones at the Scheid Diesel Extravaganza. Diesel exhaust contains 40 substances that the EPA lists as hazardous air pollutants. Fifteen of these pollutants are considered probable or known human carcinogens. Two of them that stand out are hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.

Monitoring PM

It is interesting to see just how much PM was added to our environment during the Scheid Diesel Extravaganza event. One can do so by visiting IDEM’s Air Monitoring Site in Terre Haute online. The monitor picks up data, hourly, every day in order to obtain the most current information on our local air quality. To check out the monitoring system visit

The diesel exhaust clouds to some may seem unsightly or unpleasant to breath or smell. And PM emitted from events such as the Scheid Diesel Extravaganza event may indeed have long-term health effects. But it is difficult to conclude such evidence since it is an event that takes place only one weekend each year.  

“It is very hard to interpret this data in a very small time frame,” Elstro said.

Elstro says variables like weather, length of day and certain events can put a spike of PM into the atmosphere. A good example is the Fourth of July where people are exploding fireworks that create combustion and add to the total amount of PM in the air.

“If a monitor exceeds that standard in an area where we can see a specific cause in short term, our experts have to do a lot of background work to make sure that the two are linked together, and then we have to present it to the EPA.

“Then the EPA looks at that exceptional event and determines whether it is an exceptional event. Then we can determine if we should include that data into our long term compliance,” Elstro said.

To learn more about exceptional events visit

Positive steps

While fuel and exhaust emissions for on-road vehicles are primarily regulated by the federal government, local government can have a say too on how clean of air they want.

“Local government is allowed to make environmental laws, rules regulations and ordinances that are more strict than what the state and federal requirements are,” Elstro said.

Diesel initiatives

IDEM is has been working on a number of projects to reduce harmful tailpipe emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. They are working with local schools, cities and towns to retrofit diesel vehicles with diesel oxidation catalysts, aftermarket auxiliary heaters and auxiliary power units that dramatically reduce harmful tailpipe emissions.

“We always encourage people to reduce the amount of fuel that they burn,” Elstro said.

Some tips:

n If you have a diesel vehicle, avoid idling. Turn your engine off when you are stopped.

n Keep your diesel vehicle well tuned and maintained.

n When purchasing a diesel vehicle, purchase one that meets or exceeds EPA’s new emissions standards ahead of schedule.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Reach her at JaneSantucci@your

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