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Risk of Cancer Linked to Toxins in State's Air



Source: Concord Monitor, http://www.cmonitor.com/stories/news/recent/air0117.shtml

Risk of cancer linked to toxins in state's air

Sunday, January 17, 1999

By JIM GRAHAM
Monitor staff

Even in New Hampshire, which has moved faster than any other state to clean its air, there remain pollutants that increase the chance of developing cancer, a soon-to-be-released federal study will say.

Although New Hampshire has cut air pollution faster than any other state, a soon-to-be-released federal study shows that persistent airborne toxins continue to pose long-term health threats here.

For the first time ever, an Environmental Protection Agency study has determined that even minute, everyday levels of air toxins can increase cancer rates in normally healthy people.

Nationwide, the study reports, people face slightly elevated cancer risks because of seven chemical toxins found in the air everywhere.

In some of New Hampshire's most heavily populated areas, an additional 13 toxins were at levels thought to increase cancer risks incrementally. While that number is sobering, it contrasts sharply with the nation's busiest urban areas, where up to 100 additional toxins may be above health-risk levels set by the EPA.

Most of the suspect toxins come from motor vehicles or industrial sources, though common household chemicals, wood-burning stoves, landfill gases and even the wastewater treatment process are among the many lesser culprits. In New Hampshire, air pollution from more densely populated states - routinely blown here by prevailing winds - is also a significant contributor.

"There has been a lot of progress in cleaning up cars, but the (study) results show that more needs to be done," said Robert Varney, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services. "EPA's own data clearly indicates that it should move aggressively to adopt stringent new vehicle emissions standards for cars and sport utility vehicles, as well as regulations requiring much cleaner fuels."

Sport utility vehicles have less stringent emissions standards than passenger cars, and pressure is growing to tighten them.

The study is the EPA's first attempt to quantify risks associated with the smallest levels of toxins routinely found in air, food and water. Results of ongoing food and water risk studies are not expected for several more years.

The project identifies lifetime risks associated with typical pollution levels, estimated for every county in the country. It defines increased risk as the level at which a toxin will cause one additional case of cancer per 1 million people over a typical life span.

In New Hampshire, the 20 toxins that pose a risk are just above the EPA's lowest reporting criteria.

While the risks are relatively small, they are significant enough to warrant further study and perhaps prompt future controls, said Brook Dupee of the state Bureau of Health Risk Assessment.

"We want people to be aware of these things, but we don't want them to overreact. . . . Basically, this study is a hypothesis generator," Dupee said. "In other words, it gives us ideas of what possible sources we need to look at, and what we might be able to do to address them."

The study is based on air samples taken during 1990, and state officials hope a new monitoring program will give more accurate, timely data. Since 1987, New Hampshire industries have cut toxic pollutants they must report under federal law by 85 percent, compared to a 45 percent reduction nationwide.

Ken Colburn, the state's air resources director, said while air quality here has improved dramatically since 1990, the EPA study reveals some persistent problem areas. For instance, certain air toxins such as acetaldehyde come primarily from on- and off-road vehicles, heating-oil burners, wood stoves and forest fires - all extremely difficult sources to control in a rural state such as New Hampshire.

In conjunction with the EPA study, the state is launching a new, long-term program to measure more accurately air toxin concentrations here. The program will include four monitoring stations, two in cities, one in a rural area and one mobile station that can be moved anywhere. The exact locations have not been determined.

The state also intends to expand the reporting requirements for businesses, municipalities and other leading sources of toxic emissions.

"The combination of better environmental data and better analytical tools will help the state maintain its traditional leadership in reducing toxic emissions," Varney said.

Since the 1990 data were collected, the state has adopted tighter emissions standards for new vehicles, joined a federal program to promote alternative fuel vehicles and required the use of cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline in three densely populated counties.

(Jim Graham can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 313, or by e-mail at [email protected].)

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