The huge ships sailing or bunkering just off Malta generate more toxic emissions than the equivalent of 30 Marsa power stations – and winds regularly blow the fumes all over the island, a senior scientist has warned.

Raymond Ellul, a geosciences professor at the University of Malta, has been studying ship emissions in the central Mediterranean from an isolated lighthouse-turned-lab on the coast of Gozo coast since the mid-1990s.

Raymond Ellul has been studying them since the 1990s.Raymond Ellul has been studying them since the 1990s.

He told The Sunday Times of Malta a staggering 85,000 tankers and other gigantic ships sail through the waters between Malta and Sicily annually, making this one of the busiest shipping regions in the world.

The monitoring of maritime traffic shows that approximately 200 ships sail by the island every day, with a collective engine capacity equal to around 33 of the now-defunct Marsa power stations.

“This is literally like having a power station sailing just past the island every few minutes, perhaps worse,” he said, his finger following the dramatic up-and-down peaks on his emissions readings.

Prof. Ellul was quick to add that the island’s old power stations, Marsa and BWSC – once dubbed a “cancer factory” – were actually far cleaner than the ships just off the coast.

The old power stations, he said, had been kitted out with emissions-reducing technology over the years – something few shipping companies splurged for.

The scientist lamented that due to lax shipping regulations in the Mediterranean, shipping vessels were still allowed to run on pollution-rich heavy fuel oil – the carcenogenic residue that refineries are left with after making much cleaner fuels such as marine diesel.

Malta is on a marine traffic highway... and the bulk of these ships are using highly polluting fuel

“Not long ago I had Cabinet ministers sat right here in my office. I told them about these findings, and that it was time to lobby for change,” Prof. Ellul said.  

The change the professor is calling for is that the dense shipping region around Malta be made into what is known as a controlled emissions area, like the North and Baltic Seas – where ships are not allowed to run on heavy polluters like HFO.

Prof. Ellul’s call to action comes after The Sunday Times of Malta reported earlier this month on the €24 million annual health bill that taxpayers are footing as a result of the invisible cloud of toxins coming from ships berthed in the Grand Harbour.

According to a shelved government report seen by this newspaper, the pollution, known as particulate matter, not only damages people’s health, but also crops. It even has an impact on architectural heritage.

The chemicals coming from ships in the Grand Harbour, mostly cruise liners, are now being studied by the whistleblower behind the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Axel Friedrich.

Mr Friedrcih, a former German environmental regulator, has found that the air around Valletta is reaching toxic levels 10 times higher than the island’s most congested roads.

Cruise ships 'just a small bit' of problem 

It turns out, however, that cruise ships only account for around one per cent of the shipping emissions in the waters just off Malta, with tankers and cargo ships coughing out the largest clouds of killer chemicals. 

Pointing to a tiny sliver on a pie chart, Prof. Ellul said: “That, just that small bit there, represents the emissions coming from cruise ships. All the rest comes from tankers and cargo ships”.

The veteran scientist, who has worked with Nobel Prize winners, said most Maltese were blissfully unaware of the pollution coming from the shipping industry. 

“Put it this way – if you were concerned about air pollution, you probably wouldn’t want to buy a house along a busy road, would you?”

“Well, Malta is on a marine traffic highway – one of the busiest in the world – and the bulk of these ships are using highly polluting fuel, with the exhaust spreading all over the island,” he said.

According to the European Environment Agency, 60,000 people die every year as a result of shipping emissions.

Air pollution in Malta has long been on the agenda, as the island continues to have some of the worst air in Europe. Earlier this year the European Environment Agency found only the Bulgarians, Poles and Greeks breathed dirtier air than the Maltese.

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