The toxic fumes from cruise liners sailing into the Grand Harbour would only get worse in the coming weeks as more ships arrived during the hot summer season, conservationists warned on Tuesday.

Experts working with BirdLife and German NGO Nabu said they had collected data on emissions from four vessels berthed inside the harbour in recent weeks. They expected this to get much worse at the peak of the tourist season when the island could welcome as many as seven cruise ships at the same time.

“These ships contribute to the already critical levels of air quality in Malta,” the NGOs said.

Vessels in Maltese waters have to comply with EU directives

The statement comes just days after The Sunday Times of Malta reported on the results of air-quality tests conducted in Malta by the man who blew the whistle on the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Air pollution expert Axel Friedrich found that the air quality around the Grand Harbour was reaching toxic levels  10 times higher than on the island’s most congested roads.

BirdLife said on Tuesday that while progress had been made in reducing emissions from sources like cars and power plants, shipping emissions of nitrogen oxides did not have to be filtered to the same extent.

While those living closest to the port were most affected by ship air pollution, the harmful particles could also be carried several kilometres away, affecting communities far removed from marine traffic, it pointed out.

“Ship emissions affect human health, diminishing the function of lungs and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as asthma, particularly caused by nitrogen oxides and ultrafine particles,” the wildlife conservationists said.

A government spokeswoman told the Times of Malta all vessels in Maltese waters had to comply with EU directives on sulphur content in marine fuels.

The authorities carried out inspections to ensure compliance with the standards laid down, and fines were imposed if proved such requirements were not met, she added.

Ships entering Maltese ports are asked to declare which fuel they are using. Photo: viewingmalta.comShips entering Maltese ports are asked to declare which fuel they are using. Photo: viewingmalta.com

Follow-up questions on how many inspections and fines had been issued remained unanswered at the time of writing.

“All vessels seeking permission to enter Maltese waters and ports are asked to declare which fuel they are using and are vetted to ascertain compliance before they sail in,” the spokeswoman added.

She pointed out that if a vessel did not have the correct type of fuel, it would not be allowed to enter port. However, no figures were provided on how many vessels were actually barred entry due to fuel irregularities.

Read: Diesel fumes lead to unreported deaths

The World Health Organisation last year placed diesel particles in the same carcinogenic category as smoking and asbestos.

The European Environment Agency says 60,000 people die because of shipping and cruise liner emissions every year.

Air pollution in the country has long been on the agenda as the island continues to perform badly in Europe. The European Environment Agency found earlier this year that only Bulgaria, Poland and Greece had dirtier air than Malta.