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Cancer Risk From Air Pollution Still High

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Monday, March 1, 1999

Cancer Risk From Air Pollution Still High, Study Says Environment: Samples in L.A. area indicate hazard is 426 times more than level set by EPA in 1990. Report is the first to measure carcinogenic dangers of breathing.

By LISA GETTER, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON--Despite improved air quality in the Los Angeles Basin, residents still are breathing unusually dangerous levels of cancer-causing pollutants, according to a groundbreaking congressional study set to be released today.

Although California has made strides in reducing hazardous air pollution, the report found toxics at high enough levels that the risk of cancer was 426 times higher than health standards established by the 1990 federal Clean Air Act.

"We were surprised at the findings," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who requested the report, prepared by the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee. "They are so much higher than they ought to be."

Although data about air quality have long been available, experts say the study is the first of its kind to determine cancer risks in the air people actually breathe. Using thousands of air samples collected over the last three years at sites in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Burbank, the study computed and analyzed the health risks posed by various specific pollutants.

The new findings could have wide influence on the way government views the risks of air pollutants--not just in California, but nationwide. The study probably will spur the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a national network to monitor cancer-causing pollutants in the air.

"This data should give a jolt to Los Angeles," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We know our air is dirty, but now we know in black and white that it's toxic too."

The Clean Air Act named 188 chemicals as hazardous air pollutants linked to cancer, birth defects or other serious health problems. It set a goal of reducing the lifetime cancer risk from exposure to those chemicals to one additional cancer case per million exposed people.

But the new study found the risk of some toxics in the air far exceeded those goals. The three pollutants posing the greatest dangers--1,3-butadiene, formaldehyde and benzene--all are produced by cars, trucks and other vehicles.

"It should be a wake-up to us that we've got to do more," said Waxman, one of the original authors of the Clean Air Act. "We need to pay a lot more attention to toxic air pollutants, just like we've paid attention to ozone, smog and acid rain."

The South Coast Air Quality Management District last year launched a similar but more comprehensive study to determine the cancer risks from toxic pollutants in neighborhoods. The initial results, due to be released in mid-March, will echo the conclusions of the congressional report, said Barry Wallerstein, AQMD executive officer.

"It appears that motor vehicles create the largest portion of the toxic risk in terms of their emissions," Wallerstein said. "We still need to do more on the stationary sources as well."

Wallerstein said that since the Clean Air Act was adopted in 1990, cancer risks from toxic pollutants have been reduced by 40%. But the new AQMD data show lifetime risks of getting cancer from the air at levels 200 to 400 times higher than the Clean Air Act's health goals of one additional cancer case per million.

"What one can conclude from the data they looked at and the new data we're putting together is that there have been tremendous strides made in the last 10 years in reducing air toxins in the Los Angeles Basin, but it's a work in progress," he said.

For years much of the nation has focused its attention on problems caused by ozone and smog. The House report and the upcoming AQMD study concentrate instead on health risks from toxic pollutants that can be even more deadly.

"We've done a lot to reduce hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide," Waxman said. "As we develop tighter standards from the emissions from cars and fuels they use, we'll see a reduction in those hazardous pollutants as well. But that may not be enough."

Already, California requires its cars to meet emissions standards more stringent than EPA requirements. And since 1996, the state has mandated cleaner burning, low-sulfur gasoline--a move the AQMD estimates has reduced benzene levels by 40% in the Burbank area.

"The real key here is to reduce the risk," said Mike Kenny, executive officer of the California Air Resources Board. "The overall conclusions in the report are pretty much right on."

Although Kenny said the state has been moving in the right direction to address the problem, others aren't so sure that enough government attention has been paid to airborne toxics. The congressional report relied on information collected by California but never publicly released by the state.

"Why hasn't any agency released these numbers?" Feuer said. "I think because these numbers reflect poorly on the agencies. These numbers say they're not doing enough." Existing clean air standards have improved public health, but the new study underscores the need to do more, maintained Jeff Clark, an EPA administrator in Washington.

"Clearly, those numbers are still unacceptably high," said Clark, who heads policy analysis in the EPA's air quality planning and standards division. "It's a risk that is associated with longtime, lifetime exposure to urban air."

Although recommending that the EPA make the Los Angeles area a priority for further study, the report noted that the risks of getting cancer from the Southern California air are still much lower than the risks of getting cancer from cigarettes.

A one-pack-a-day smoker, the report said, is 250 times more likely to get lung cancer than a person who simply breathes bad air in L.A.

Times staff writer David Willman contributed to this story.

Copyright Los Angeles Times
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