Report: Safeguarding Public Health

Toxic Pollution And Health

An Analysis of Toxic Chemicals Released in Communities across the United States
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Industries across the United States pump billions of pounds of toxic chemicals into our air, land, and water each year, many of which can cause cancer and other severe health effects. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program provides Americans with the best information about toxic chemicals released in their communities. Unfortunately, in December 2006 the Bush administration limited the public’s right-to-know about this pollution by giving some polluters a free pass on reporting their toxic emissions.

The TRI program is a critical tool for citizens, public health officials, and policy-makers interested in identifying trends in toxic pollution at the local, state and national levels. Each year, the country’s largest facilities from a range of industries report their air, water, and land releases of more than 600 toxic chemicals, providing valuable information about which chemicals are entering the environment and where. For some of these chemicals, scientists know little about their effects on public health and the environment. For many, however, scientists have linked exposure to harmful health effects ranging from chronic bronchitis to developmental problems to cancer.

Using the latest available TRI data, we examined releases of chemicals known or suspected to cause serious health problems and identified states and localities that are bearing the brunt of this pollution. Specifically, we looked at releases of substances recognized by the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive problems; we also looked at releases of substances suspected by scientists to damage the neurological or respiratory systems.

Our findings include:

Industries continue to release toxic chemicals linked to severe health effects into our air and water. 

In 2004, U.S. facilities—led by the chemical and paper industries—released more than 70 million pounds of recognized carcinogens to the air and water. Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida ranked highest for air and water releases of carcinogens.

In 2004, U.S. facilities—led by the chemical industry—reported more than 96 million pounds of air and water emissions of chemicals linked to developmental problems, such as birth defects and learning disabilities, and almost 38 million pounds of chemicals linked to reproductive disorders.

In 2004, U.S. facilities—led by the chemical and paper industries and electric utilities—released more than 826 million pounds of suspected neurological toxicants to the air and water. Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio ranked highest for air and water releases of neurotoxicants.

In 2004, U.S. facilities released almost 1.5 billion pounds of suspected respiratory toxicants to the air, with electric utilities accounting for almost half of the pollution. Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania ranked highest for respiratory toxicant releases to air.

In 2004, U.S. facilities reported releasing 2,631 grams of dioxins—one of the most dangerous substances known to science—to the air and water. The chemical industry and electric utilities released the most dioxins. 

A relatively small number of communities often experience the bulk of the air and water pollution.

In 2004, almost a quarter (24 percent) of all air and water releases of carcinogens occurred within just 20 U.S. counties. Four Texas counties—Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, and Jefferson—ranked in the top five counties for most carcinogenic emissions.

Tennessee, Texas and Illinois accounted for more than 40 percent of the nation’s developmental toxicant releases and more than 70 percent of the reproductive toxicant releases in 2004.

Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of all air and water releases of dioxins reported to TRI in 2004 occurred within just 20 zip codes. Zip code 77541 in Freeport, Texas and 70765 in Plaquemine, Louisiana are home to the two facilities—both owned by Dow Chemical—that released the most dioxins in 2004.

The mining industry overwhelmingly releases the most toxic pollution to land.

In 2004, U.S. facilities reporting to TRI released more than 608 million pounds of carcinogens, developmental toxicants and reproductive toxicants to land. The metal mining industry was responsible for about 485 million pounds (80 percent) of these releases.

Two-thirds (67 percent) of the land releases of carcinogens, developmental toxicants and reproductive toxicants were lead or lead compounds. Exposure to lead can affect almost every organ and system in the human body, especially the central nervous system.

Nevada, Alaska, and Utah ranked highest for land releases of carcinogens, developmental toxicants and reproductive toxicants in 2004, accounting for 71 percent of the land
releases of these substances nationally.

The Bush administration has limited the public’s right-to-know about toxic releases.

On December 22, 2006, the Bush administration finalized a new rule that will reduce the quantity and quality of toxic chemical data submitted under TRI and available to the public. Specifically, the new rule allows facilities to avoid submitting detailed reports for management of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (other than dioxins) under 500 pounds.

These substance persist in the environment, and even minute amounts pose a serious risk to public health. For all other chemicals, the Bush administration raised the threshold at which companies are required to submit detailed reports from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds per year of waste generation, if not more than 2,000 pounds are released to the environment. The end result is that the public will have less information about toxic pollution released in communities.

The public needs more information about toxic pollution, not less, and facilities need to cut toxic chemical use and releases.

The Bush administration should reverse its policy that limits reporting of toxic chemicals and instead strengthen the quality and quantity of data provided to the public. Moreover, the United States needs to make toxics use reduction a priority and require facilities to find safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.

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