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Mapping the risks of pollution:
New Jersey Takes CEP Seriously


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Mapping the risks of pollution

Sunday, May 16, 1999

Trenton Bureau

"The EPA had originally intended to publish its modeling data in December of last year, but it opted not to after complaints from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Instead, the EPA made the raw data available to the public upon request without analyzing or summarizing its findings."

Millions of people living in New Jersey and much of the Northeast are breathing a toxic stew of unhealthy air that can increase the chances of getting cancer, an extensive analysis of federal government data by The Record has found.

With the help of a computer mapping program, The Record analyzed data generated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently modeled the concentrations of 148 hazardous air pollutants throughout the country. The analysis turned up several troubling findings, including:

In some parts of New Jersey, as many as 30 of the 148 chemicals exceed the cancer risk. In Bergen and Passaic counties, depending on location, between 17 and 21 chemicals exceed the cancer benchmark, with the highest concentration of toxic chemicals in the southern sections. In Morris County, between 12 and 20 chemicals exceed the benchmark in any one location.

Nine chemicals are in such high concentrations that they are 100 times greater than the cancer risk in at least one census tract in New Jersey, and 13 exceed the cancer risk by more than 50 times.

In the Northeast, the risk of getting cancer is greatest in places that have the highest concentration of people, cars, and industry: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Manhattan, and parts of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn.

In parts of Camden, Newark, Jersey City, Linden, and Elizabeth, the risks are just as high as in the major Northeastern cities. In the rest of New Jersey, the risks are also elevated, but they decrease the farther you go from the industrial corridor that closely follows the New Jersey Turnpike.

The EPA used a computer model, known as the Cumulative Exposure Project, to figure the concentration of the chemicals in every census tract in the nation. Census tracts vary in size, but generally include about 4,000 people.

By itself, the data are nothing more than a collection of numbers. But when analyzed, they provide the first look at the extent of the problem of airborne toxic agents, a group of chemicals that has received little attention in the nation's battle against air pollution.

In many cases, the concentrations of toxic agents far exceed the health benchmark -- which is one cancer in a population of 1 million people exposed to a particular chemical or group of chemicals in their lifetimes.

Although industry contributes its share to the problem, motor vehicles are a major source of some of the worst air pollutants, such as benzene, formaldehyde, 1,3 butadiene, and acetylaldehyde. Areas with heavy traffic tend to have the highest concentrations of toxic pollutants.

The EPA estimates that 29 percent of the toxic pollutants in New Jersey come from motor vehicles.

"I do not feel like people need to be fleeing the cities," said Charissa Rigano, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But it should raise awareness that something needs to be done, especially on these mobile sources."

Cancer risks

Allthough air pollution elevates the risk of getting cancer, that risk is still small compared to other activities, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating a diet high in fat.

In one landmark 1981 study, researchers concluded that 35 percent of all cancers in the United States could be traced to diet, while 30 percent were attributable to smoking. Pollution accounted for 2 percent. The study is nearly two decades old, but subsequent research has bolstered its findings.

"I agree that air pollutants account for a small percentage of cancer," said Bernard D. Goldstein, the director of New Jersey's Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in Piscataway. "But we don't know the cause of most cancers. We've got to admit our ignorance."

Researchers, for example, don't know the true cumulative impact of breathing so many different types of toxic agents.

Nevertheless, toxicologists do their best to estimate the probability that a group of people will get cancer from exposure to certain hazards.

For example, if 1 million people were exposed over their lifetimes to a chemical or mixture of chemicals posing a cancer risk of one in 1 million, then scientists would expect one additional cancer in that population.

The EPA data show that no part of the nation has a zero risk of cancer from airborne chemicals. In the Northeast, the cancer risk for 1 million people ranges as high as 2,609 in a section of New York City to 29 in upstate New York, according to the EPA data.

The one in a million cancer risk from airborne chemicals averages 370 in Passaic County and 317 in Bergen County, meaning that there will be 370 additional people in Passaic and 317 in Bergen who can expect to get cancer in a population of 1 million over their lifetimes.

"There's pollution everywhere," said Joann Held, a scientist with the state Department of Environmental Protection. "Wherever you have people, you have these emissions. It's not like you can say, 'I'll move to Sussex County and be safe.' You can't escape it."

Even hibernating indoors won't protect people from air pollutants. Carpeting, furniture made with particle board, a gasoline-powered lawnmower sitting unused in an attached garage, and old cans of paint stored in the basement all emit toxic agents, and at levels that can exceed those found outdoors.

Lifestyle choices can make the biggest impact. Someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day will be exposed to 20 to 50 times more benzene, for example, than someone breathing even the most tainted outdoor air.

"With smoking, you're dealing with a situation that swamps anything you're going to get from outdoor air," Goldstein said.

Sources of emissions

Toxic emissions come from three main sources.

Motor vehicles and users of internal combustion engines, such as farm and construction equipment, lawnmowers, and boats, account for about 38 percent of the total emissions of toxic chemicals in New Jersey, according to the EPA.

Although gasoline and exhaust emissions have become cleaner over the years, cars still spew a blend of hazardous chemicals that include benzene, formaldehyde, acetylaldehyde, 1,3 butadiene, and polycyclic organic compounds.

All the chemicals are either in gasoline or created by burning gasoline, and all are carcinogenic. In every part of New Jersey, all but acetylaldehyde exceed the acceptable cancer risk of one in a population of 1 million. Acetylaldehyde exceeds the cancer benchmark in all of Bergen and most of Passaic and Morris counties.

More than half of the toxic pollutants come from what the EPA classifies as area sources, which comprise a wide range of categories including small unregulated or barely regulated manufacturers, residential heaters, wood-burning fireplaces, gas stations, and household products such as paint, cleaning solvents, and pesticides.

The smallest share of pollution comes from the major industrial plants that many people associate with air pollution. The EPA estimates that only 10 percent of the toxic agents in New Jersey's air come from so-called point sources of pollution, such as large chemical plants, oil refineries, and incinerators.

What is being done?

State and federal regulators have done little specifically to decrease toxic pollutants. Much of the focus over the years has been on decreasing six so-called criteria pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. All but ozone now meet the federal standards. Among the six criteria pollutants, only lead is a hazardous air pollutant.

In an effort to cut ozone levels, regulators since 1990 have been looking to cut the levels of volatile organic chemicals in the air. Volatile organics evaporate and react with nitrogen dioxide in sunlight to form ground-level ozone during the hot summer months.

But because many toxic pollutants are also volatile organics, the efforts to cut ozone have had the side benefit of reducing the most hazardous of the pollutants, too. Much of the effort has been on cleaning up gasoline and tightening emissions standards on cars.

In 1993, the federal government began requiring cleaner-burning diesel fuel. The following year, cars were required to meet new federal emissions standards. In 1995, gasoline was reformulated to evaporate less and burn cleaner.

Last year, the state began requiring gas cap tests at car inspection stations to help reduce the escape of benzene vapors from gasoline tanks. In December, the state will begin a tougher emissions test. Although the test is aimed at reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions, a cleaner burning engine will emit less toxic pollution.

Major industrial sources of toxic pollution, such as large chemical plants and oil refineries, have been steadily reducing the amount of hazardous air pollutants released into the air over the last decade in New Jersey.

The federal government has also begun to crack down on area sources. Since 1990, it has enacted a host of new regulations that require a wide range of smaller polluters to use advanced pollution controls. The regulations affect everything from neighborhood dry cleaners to hospital incinerators to the printing and publishing industry.

The regulations, however, are not expected to have much of an impact in New Jersey because the state DEP imposed many of the same rules in the 1980s, Held said.

The state DEP could have reduced toxic agents further by requiring emission sources applying for operating permits to do what are known as risk assessments. Instead, the risk assessments are voluntary.

"If a company calculates a high risk, they will often find ways to reduce the risk," Held said. "Once they quantify the impact on their neighbors, they are often motivated to reduce it. However, no one has opted for this voluntary risk assessment."

The first step to reducing toxic substances in the years to come is understanding where they are and in what amounts. The EPA's model helps, but it is only an estimate based on many assumptions that could be wrong. In fact, the DEP found some errors in the EPA's data, most significantly in Salem County, but not enough to invalidate the overall results of the study.

Knowing the actual concentrations of the chemicals would be a big help to scientists studying the toxic pollution problem. But New Jersey has only one air monitor in Camden County, and it measures only 19 of the 148 chemicals modeled by the EPA. Of them, only three -- vinyl chloride, 1,3 butadiene, and benzene -- are of a major concern in New Jersey.

The EPA has said it intends to add 17 new monitoring stations nationwide later this year. The state DEP has announced that it plans to install a new monitoring station somewhere in North Jersey.

Beyond increased monitoring, the EPA is proposing tougher emission standards for new motor vehicles that, at a minimum, would reduce benzene and formaldehyde.

Although car exhaust has become cleaner since 1990, emissions from sport utility vehicles have remained essentially unchanged because they were exempted. The EPA has proposed including SUVs, but it is facing widespread opposition from manufacturers.

The EPA is also planning to impose new requirements on a host of smaller emission sources that until now have been mostly free of air pollution controls.

The EPA had originally intended to publish its modeling data in December of last year, but it opted not to after complaints from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Instead, the EPA made the raw data available to the public upon request without analyzing or summarizing its findings.

DEP officials initially sought to downplay the data, stressing that the numbers were from 1990 and saying that air quality has since improved because of cleaner cars, better fuels, and reductions in industrial emissions.

But since then, the DEP has acknowledged the importance of the EPA's model and posted a Web page Friday explaining the toxic pollution problem in New Jersey. It can be found at

The EPA is expected to produce another model later this year based on 1996 emissions data.

"People involved in risk assessment say, 'It's only one in a million; what's the big deal?' If it was your child or your spouse, how would you feel?" said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter.

"The whole point of this information being released is for the public to know what is happening to them so they can demand the proper permitting and pollution control equipment and so they don't have to be subject to these potential health risks," Tittel said.

Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp.

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