Dave Walton stands in a soybean field about to be harve

Study shows biodiesel’s impact on human health

June 24, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

It’s a known fact that biodiesel production adds value to every bushel of soybeans. New research backed by the Iowa Soybean Association shows that switching to 100% biodiesel in the transportation and home heating oil sectors could also benefit human health.

“We’ve known for decades that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by over 80%, but this study takes it to the next level,” says Donnell Rehagen, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board. “It contributes to the mounting evidence that biodiesel can have a significant impact on an issue that’s important to all Americans: their health.”

The National Biodiesel Board hired Trinity Consultants to conduct the study in 2020, focusing on 13 selected areas of the country where diesel powered-vehicles and petroleum-based heating oil are widely used.

The West Coast and Colorado analysis focused on transportation sources (i.e., medium- and heavy duty diesel-powered vehicles), while the East Coast analysis focused on residential heating oil uses. Sources evaluated included ports, railyards, freeways and interstate highways, logistics facilities, agricultural operations, residential housing developments, and urban areas.

Researchers found that switching to 100% biodiesel in the home heating oil and transportation sectors would prevent 340 premature deaths annually; and result in 46,000 fewer sick days in the 13 states the study was performed. In the transportation sector, benefits included a potential 45% reduction in cancer risk when heavy-duty trucks such as semis use B100 and 203,000 fewer or lessened asthma attacks.

When Bioheat® fuel made from 100% biodiesel is used in place of petroleum heating oil, the study found an 86% reduced cancer risk and 17,000 fewer lung problems. The study also considered the economic cost of premature deaths, asthma cases, reduced activity due to poor health, and work impacted due to sick days.

Reducing pollutants

California has seen what biodiesel can do when it comes to reducing emissions. It’s relied on biodiesel over the past 10 years since it set a low carbon fuel standard incentivizing emission reduction technology, including biofuels.

“Biodiesel has contributed over 40% of the total emissions reductions in California to date,” says Matt Herman, director of environmental science for the National Biodiesel Board. The state is currently consuming close to 1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel; the United States consumes over 3 billion gallons.

This newly-released health benefits study helps tell the complete story of biodiesel, Herman says.

“While greenhouse gas reductions are very important for global implications, improving air quality has a much more local, personal benefit,” he said.

How does biodiesel improve health?

By significantly reducing criteria pollutants, emissions such as particulate matter and carbon monoxide. These pollutants lead to smog and acid rain, and adverse health impacts like cancer or asthma.

Communities which suffer from poor air quality tend to be located near high volumes of diesel usage: ports, logistics locations and transit hubs. These communities have long endured instances of poor air quality and are referred to as environmental justice communities, according to Herman.

“While a significant long-term solution to lowering particulate matter will be switching to electric vehicles, we recognize that few electric heavy duty vehicles are on the road today, and meaningful mass adoption of these vehicles is still likely decades away,” Herman says. “This means that if we want to reduce harmful particulate matter pollution today while also working toward our long-term climate goals, we must consider the use of all available solutions including highly sustainable biofuels like biodiesel.”

Results from Trinity study are scalable to other regions and fuel blends, including renewable diesel.

“This study represents just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the potential public health benefits of using biodiesel,” says Floyd Vergara, director of state governmental affairs for the National Biodiesel Board.

Funding the study

The Iowa Soybean Association put $5,000 toward the study. Other states also contributed dollars to the project. ISA Board Treasurer and District 6 Director Dave Walton says the investment helps further the discussion of biodiesel usage in the nation.

“With the focus on climate and health issues, we wanted to change the discussion a little bit to show that biodiesel is not only a low carbon fuel, but there are health benefits, too,” says Walton, who uses biodiesel year-round on his farm.

He says the scalability of the study can be easily translated to cities in the Midwest with high diesel usage: Des Moines, Ames, Quad Cities, and Omaha.

Besides adding 17% to the value of soybeans, this study shows that increasing biodiesel usage can play a role in reducing emissions and improving human health, Walton says.

“It’s something we can hang our hat on,” says Walton, a member of the National Biodiesel Board and Iowa Biodiesel Board of Directors. “We have a product coming out of our industry that has a benefit to the larger society, especially as we talk about health benefits. Biodiesel lowers particulate emissions from diesel engine. That’s something that really helps tell our story.”