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Risk of Cancer Linked to Toxins in State's Air

Source: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

Few places left in U.S. to breathe clean air, EPA study finds Results show virtually every American inhales unsafe levels of toxic chemicals

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Americans increase their risk of cancer practically every time they draw a breath in the great outdoors, according to a groundbreaking federal project that finds there is almost no place in the United States to escape toxic chemicals in the air.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that virtually every American inhaled slightly unsafe levels of at least eight chemicals, and 20 million faced at least a 1-in-10,000 lifetime risk of getting cancer as a result in 1990, the most recent year for which data were available for the agency's Cumulative Exposure Project.

The EPA last month abruptly shelved plans to release community-level results from the project after the U.S. Conference of Mayors and some state officials objected that the 1990 air pollution data did not reflect progress in the fight against air pollution in the 1990s.

But officials in states such as Vermont that already aggressively monitor chemicals in the air say the EPA findings remain broadly accurate today, leading environmentalists to suspect that critics are most nervous about the political impact of a report on pervasive toxic chemical pollution.

"Many people will be surprised by the relatively high level of health risk associated with air toxics in their area," said Bill Pease, a toxicologist at the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund who obtained the EPA results under the Freedom of Information Act. "There are a lot of activities we engage in on a daily basis and don't think they have a toxic consequence."

The EPA project marks the first time that researchers have estimated Americans' exposure to scores of toxic chemicals released by industry, automobiles and businesses such as dry cleaners. Unlike most air pollution studies, which focus on a handful of regulated chemicals such as lead and ozone, the EPA looked at 148 less well understood chemicals, such as formaldehyde, that few communities regularly monitor.

Using 1990 data on pollution releases, the most recent statistics available when the project began in 1994, EPA researchers estimated chemical concentrations for all 60,803 U.S. Census tracts, each representing 4,000 to 5,000 people. The researchers then compared the chemical levels against the amount that would cause cancer or other illnesses in at least one person out of a million over a 70-year lifetime.

"We rarely see such valuable data sets coming out of U.S. EPA. This is a gold mine," said Pease, who has started analyzing the voluminous EPA data.

The results suggest a remarkably widespread pollution problem. Virtually every census tract had elevated levels of at least eight chemicals that can cause cancer or other illnesses, with an average of 14 elevated chemicals per tract.

Moreover, even if all pollution stopped tomorrow, EPA researchers found, Americans would still breathe worrisome levels of eight chemicals because of past pollution as well as natural sources. For example, chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride, a now-banned dry-cleaning fluid that can cause cancer, remain in the air for decades after they are released.

In addition, potentially toxic levels of these chemicals are present throughout the country: Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, benzene, chloroform, ethylene dibromide, ethylene dichloride, formaldehyde and methyl chloride.

But Kevin McCarty, assistant executive director for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the toxic air emissions review was based on data that are too old and too dependent on computer projections to be reliable, making them open to abuse.

He said the EPA should wait for newer 1996 air emissions data, expected later this year, that might show the air is getting cleaner. The data could then be fed into the EPA researchers' computer model to estimate Americans' exposure levels, a process that EPA sources say would take until 2000.

In response, EPA officials indefinitely shelved plans to release the project's findings while they reviewed them. Now, they say they plan to release the census tract information to those who request it, but they say the 1990 study was intended simply to test its computer models.

"EPA strongly cautions that the results of this modeling exercise alone should not be used to draw real-world conclusions about current local conditions," EPA Associate Administrator Loretta M. Ucelli said in a prepared statement.

But the study's authors as well as some state officials were angered at the EPA's seeming retreat, arguing that the change was unnecessary and harmful to a health issue that often takes a back seat to more high-profile pollution problems such as smog and acid rain.

"It is a modeling exercise, but it is the best we have and the data has been extensively reviewed and reviewed and re-reviewed" by outside experts, said a co-author of the air pollution report, Rachel Morello-Frosch, who is now at the University of California-Berkeley's School of Public Health. "It doesn't get much better than that." Morello-Frosch conceded that numerous initiatives might have cut toxic chemical emissions since 1990 states have reduced the benzene in gasoline and required fume-trapping hoods on gas pumps, for example but she warned "it's not necessarily a good assumption to assume everything has improved."

------------ A copy of the report can be found on the EPA's Internet home page ( under a search of Cumulative Exposure Project.

(Copyright 1999)

Publication Date: January 21, 1999
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