Of course the City of Charleston doesn’t try to make children sick. And the State Ports Authority doesn’t intend for people to lose years of life living or working in Charleston. So why do they promote policies that do exactly that?

When officials don’t understand air pollution, they make policy decisions with unintentional but serious consequences. We all know the words “air pollution,” but what do we really understand?

Consider some key facts: Air pollution directly causes heart disease, lung disease and cancer. On days with higher air pollution, there are more asthma attacks, heart attacks and more deaths. Our health is affected by surprisingly short periods of exposure. Children are especially sensitive, and when chronically exposed to air pollution, they develop permanently smaller lung capacities.

People living in cities with significant air pollution lose 1.5 years of life on average. Charleston was one of just two of the nation’s 10 busiest ports to receive an “F” for air quality in a 2004 study of U.S. ports. And this will get worse as port and cruise business grows in Charleston. Charleston County ranks among the dirtiest 30 percent of counties in the country for hazardous air pollutants, such as diesel exhaust.

Port cities typically have high levels of air pollution from shipping. Ships produce 40 percent of all the air pollution over land, and will create more than all other sources combined by 2030. Air pollution from ships spreads over coastal areas and far inland, causing health problems. Port workers are at the highest risk, with dramatically more heart disease and a 20-50 percent increased risk of lung cancer.

Next at risk are residents near ports, particularly children and the elderly. Children living in port cities have almost twice the average risk of developing asthma. Current predictions are that almost 100,000 people worldwide will die in 2012 from illness caused by maritime air pollution.

Reducing air pollution improves health. When air pollution levels drop, there is a rapid and dramatic drop in deaths from heart disease as a result.

A combination of successful strategies used elsewhere to cut air pollution from ships could benefit Charleston. Slow-steaming (slower speed limits for ships near town), low sulfur fuels and shoreside power all decrease air pollution from ships in or near port.

Normally ships run their engines continuously in order to have electricity in port. Cruise ships require significantly more electricity than container ships. One cruise ship running its engines in port produces the air pollution equivalent of approximately 12,000 cars idling, continuously at the terminal, for the entire duration of the ship’s stay.

Shoreside power, which allows a ship to shut off its engines and plug into an electrical source, cuts air pollution emissions to zero. Shoreside power reduces air pollution more than any other single strategy.

Mayor Joe Riley believes that shoreside power is ineffective and “cost-prohibitive for a port like Charleston with such a low level of cruise activity”; but in fact, shore-side power is being used at cruise terminals around the world, including those with less cruise business than Charleston. Most other U.S. ports have paid for its installation through a combination of EPA grants, port, city and shipping industry contributions. Charleston could follow this same model.

Many older cruise ships are being retrofitted, and new ships are now built with shoreside power capability. This is becoming the standard.

Without shoreside power, Charleston’s new cruise terminal will be outdated before it is even complete. If we opt not to have shore power at the terminal, then we are destined to become the port for the oldest, most polluting ships. In 2002 Carnival Corp. pled guilty in federal court to violations of U.S. environmental law. The Fantasy — Carnival’s oldest ship, now home-ported in Charleston — is one of several Carnival ships caught illegaly dumping oily bilge overboard.

Hopefully, the cruise industry is sincere in its recent efforts to decrease pollution. However, the industry should not be the source of information, as it has been up to now, guiding local community leaders’ decisions. Most of the money generated from the cruise industry goes out of state, to international corporations. We are then left with health problems in our children, residents, and workers.

We all want to see jobs and tourism grow for our city, but not at this price. There will never be consensus on every issue regarding cruise ships in Charleston, but the issue of health is a no-brainer.

We must agree to take every reasonable step to limit air pollution from ships.

Henry Tomlinson, a biology major, is a senior in the Honors College at the College of Charleston. This op-ed is based on his research for his bachelor’s essay on the health impacts from shipping pollution, overseen by a faculty advisor.