Pollution study cites small firms, autos
Friday, May 14, 1999
By Brent Hunsberger of The Oregonian staff
If you live near Portland, you may be breathing easy. Smog levels appear to be under control. The view of Mount Hood is the best it's been in two decades.
Despite such gains in air quality, however, residents of Multnomah County still face a greater risk from cancer-causing air pollutants than most Western urban areas, according to a recent analysis of 1990 federal air pollution estimates.
The analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that risks from cancer-causing air pollutants in Multnomah County are 520 times higher than the health standard that Congress set in 1990, when it amended the Clean Air Act. The group used 1990 estimates, rather than more recent monitoring data, because they were the most recent available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The ranking puts Multnomah County among the top 50 counties nationwide for such pollutants and among the top five counties in the Western United States, according to the analysis.
Even more surprising, EPA and defense fund officials said, is that according to the analysis the main sources of these pollutants aren't smokestacks. They're automobiles and small businesses, such as dry cleaners and auto-body shops -- sources that regulators have a tough time targeting for reduction.
"If you live right next to a factory, it's probably going to be the dominant pollution source for you," said Karen Florini, senior attorney for the conservation group. "But that isn't the case for most of the public."
No cause for alarm
(Environmental) Defense fund officials cautioned that the analysis shouldn't be cause for alarm. Cancer risks from air pollutants are hundreds of times lower than the risks to individuals who smoke a pack of cigarettes each day.
But similar analyses of the 1990 federal air estimates by Congress and other environmental groups have lent momentum to a national drive for a better understanding of the health effects of air pollutants, such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene and formaldehyde.
"It really points to the need for better numbers and better monitoring," said Sarah Armitage, a natural resource specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "We don't have a complete picture yet."
In 1990, the Clean Air Act identified 188 chemicals as hazardous air pollutants linked to cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems. It set a goal of reducing the lifetime cancer risk from exposure to those chemicals to one additional cancer case for every 1 million people exposed.
Even though the Environmental Defense Fund used 1990 federal pollution estimates, comparing them with 1996 monitoring data indicates that in some cases the estimates underestimated the risks, Florini and others said.
Monitoring inconsistent Environmentalists and regulators hesitate to leap to conclusions about the analysis because the health effects of many of the pollutants are uncertain and air-pollutant monitoring nationwide is inconsistent.
"We have no agreement on what chemicals should be measured," John Seitz, director of EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, told a federal advisory group meeting in Portland last month. "As a matter of fact, we don't even know what to measure, in some cases."
Across the country, community advocates are calling for better information about toxic hot spots -- areas with high levels of pollutants. Industry, long a target of federal and state programs aimed at reducing air pollutants, wants regulators to pay more attention to automobiles and small area sources.
"No matter what we do, we can't solve the whole problem," said Susan Mulholland, a member of Associated Oregon Industries' environment policy committee. "We know we have to step up to the plate. But we want included all the sources that might be a problem."
Oregon environmental officials last tried to measure air pollutants in 1987, said Gregg Lande, DEQ's hazardous air pollution specialist. The agency has no monitors that track air pollutants, as some states do.
But several efforts are under way locally and nationally to help the public learn about and understand the risks:
- The EPA in June expects to complete work on a strategy for reducing urban air pollutants. The program specifically aims to reduce pollution from automobiles and small businesses.
- The DEQ's Hazardous Air Pollutants Consensus Group is examining ways of analyzing and monitoring air pollutants statewide.
- Using $440,000 in grants from the EPA, the DEQ expects to update its measurement of hazardous air pollutants in the Portland area by October. It also is putting temporary air-pollutant monitors in five sites throughout Portland and Beaverton to help determine the best place for a permanent monitor for EPA's nationwide system.
"The big thing with hazardous air pollution is, it's involuntary," said Sarah Doll of the Oregon Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group.
"You choose to smoke," said Doll, who also is a member of the state's consensus group. "You don't choose to breathe the air you're breathing. We have a responsibility to address that."
You can reach Brent Hunsberger at 503-221-8359 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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