We're All At Risk From Air Toxics

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday released some very disturbing results of its analysis of air toxics data from 2002. EPA found that every U.S. resident has a higher cancer risk of greater than 10 in a million from exposure to air toxics. Every U.S. resident. What does a 10 in a million increased cancer risk mean? The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have committed to not going forward with new projects if the projected increase in cancer risk from a project is 10 in a million or greater.

The EPA study also found that two million Americans have an increased cancer risk of more than 100 in a million from air toxics - a level of risk ten times higher than what is allowed at our country's busiest ports. The study itself is difficult to parse through, but here's a good summary.

There are some methodological questions about the study that I'm not clear about. For example, the potential cancer risk from diesel PM exhaust emissions is not addressed, even though, as EPA itself says, "It is particularly significant that the assessment did not quantify cancer risk from diesel PM, although EPA has concluded that the general population is exposed to levels close to or overlapping with apparent levels that have been linked to increase cancer risk in epidemiology studies." What that means to me is that EPA knows that the results from this study underestimate the actual cancer risk from air pollutants.

In fact, the cancer risk for diesel emissions has been addressed for the LA Ports area in the South Coast Air Quality Management District's MATES III study, which found elevated cancer risks of over 3,600 in a million near the ports. NRDC's scientists believe that diesel particulate matter is responsible for the vast majority of cancer risk from air toxics, and that noncancer impacts are tenfold greater for diesel.

The takeaway message from the EPA study is this: we have a huge public health problem in the U.S. as a result of polluted air. What is so frustrating to my NRDC Air Team colleagues and me is that most of our air pollution can be eliminated using current technology - for a price. So far, we as a society have not been willing to pay that price.