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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Air Pollution Study Put on Hold

Air Date: Week of

An air pollution study by the Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that at least 8 airborne chemicals exist at dangerous levels nationwide. But the EPA has decided to withhold the results of the study after objections by the U-S Conference of Mayors. Host Steve Curwood gets details from Boston Globe environment reporter Scott Allen.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The results of a groundbreaking new Federal study of air pollution might have been available at the click of a button. But they're not, because of objections from the nation's mayors. The Environmental Protection Agency's Cumulative Exposure Project is looking at airborne toxic chemicals. So far it has found that at least 8 of these chemicals are present at dangerous levels in every neighborhood in the continental US. The EPA was ready to post the city-by- city results on their Web site last month, but it decided not to, after the Conference of Mayors questioned the findings, saying they were based on untested models and old data. Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe. He says the report's conclusions are disturbing.

ALLEN: If you are living anywhere in the United States and taking a breath as we speak, you're getting at least an 8 in a million lifetime cancer risk of exposure from what you're breathing. That may not sound like a whole lot, but when you multiply it over a city's population, a couple million people living in a city or 5 million people in a state, it adds up to hundreds and thousands of cancers spread across a lot of people. And you have to also consider that there are some places, in fact about 10% of the United States, has got a significantly higher risk of cancer from the toxic chemicals in the air. Their risk is at least one in 10,000. And that means in any small town on America, practically, 1 or 2 people are getting cancer from breathing the air. Not any special pollution, but just the regular everyday air.

CURWOOD: So, the EPA really looked at this on a neighborhood-by- neighborhood level. But they won't tell us about this data, now.

ALLEN: Well, initially, the EPA had completed their study and they were ready in December to release the census track data, which would mean that you or I or anybody who's listening to this program could punch up on the Internet the EPA's home page and find out what is the contamination level in your neighborhood? The US Conference of Mayors in particular found out about this just before it was supposed to go public, and it made them nervous in the extreme. They said The Clinton Administration is pushing urban development. You are trying to redevelop contaminated places and bring jobs back to urban areas. And now you're about to release reams of data that suggests urban areas in particular are contaminated. This could be very damaging to efforts to redevelop downtown communities. And they also said this information is not trustworthy. It's the first time you've done this kind of detailed assessment, and you're using 1990 data, which was the most recent material available for the whole nation when they started. They said given the possible terrible effects on economic development, don't put this out in the world. Wait until you've got more up-to-date data and refine your model, so that you can feel confident that it is in fact accurate, down to the neighborhood level.

CURWOOD: Is it good data or not, do you think?

ALLEN: That's the $64,000 question. There has been reduction in air pollution since the early 1990s, no question about it. The fact is, though, that much of the focus of the war on air pollution has been smog, acid rain, and a few very well-known pollutants. Those have been our major targets that we've been trying to reduce. The focus in this project was scores of chemicals, some of which I can't even pronounce let alone tell you what they're used for. But they are not monitored across this country. They have not been the target of big clean-up efforts. And I think you can probably make a pretty good case that those chemicals haven't improved at all.

CURWOOD: So now, what's going to happen to all this data that the EPA has compiled?

ALLEN: Well, you know, to the EPA's credit, they are not hiding this data from the world. They have downgraded their opinion of it. They now say it's just a test of their system, that it was not meant to be used to make local decisions. However, if you want a copy of the data, write to the EPA and say, "I would like the census track data on air pollution from the Cumulative Exposure Project," and they will send it to you in due time; they have not set a date yet. They also say that eventually it may be put onto the Web, where you can access it more easily than that. But they're still, quote, their words, "massaging the data." So they're not ready to put it out into the world yet, and they've not set a date on that. But this is the beginning of something. It's not the end. And we're moving to a whole different level of talking about air pollution and no longer saying, "Here's the tons of stuff that went up into the air." Instead, we're going to start translating it to, "How much is going into your lungs?" And that is the future of the air pollution debate.

CURWOOD: Well, Scott Allen, I want to thank you for taking this time.

ALLEN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

CURWOOD: Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe.



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