When pollution is a matter of life and death

  • The EPA found that a small town in Louisiana was overloaded with carcinogens. Why didn’t that mean the government had to act?
- Sharon lerner

Jun 25, 2019-

Not long after President Donald Trump took office, I visited a small neighborhood in Louisiana. A half-hour from New Orleans, St. John the Baptist is a rectangle of modest homes bounded by the Mississippi River on one side and a large factory on another. For years, the people living there felt they had suffered a disproportionate share of health problems, including immune disorders, respiratory distress, headaches, heart troubles and cancers.

As an environmental reporter, I know how hard it is to definitively tie a community’s health complaints to its surroundings. Even when there is severe suffering and a seemingly obvious culprit, it’s often impossible to pin blame on any single cause. But in St. John, the case had already been precisely made by the very entity that had the power to change it. At the end of 2015, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency showed that the census tract in St. John had by far the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation. Nationwide the risk of cancer from chemicals emitted by industrial facilities was about 30 for every million people. But

in this small neighborhood, it was more than 800.

A vast majority of that risk, according to the report, was coming from a colorless gas called chloroprene that the nearby factory has been emitting since 1969. For most of that time, there was no official government recognition of the chemical’s harms. But in 2010, a little-known division of the Environmental Protection Agency called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, had assessed chloroprene to be a likely human carcinogen and calculated a new safety limit for it. Five years later, the agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment report used that threshold and emissions data from the plant to estimate the local cancer risk.

Of course, the news that they had been breathing toxic air for decades infuriated the people of St. John. But it also served as a cry for help. Surely once a federal agency pinpointed their problem, someone would have to fix it.

But as the people of St. John soon learned, though lawmakers can use the risk levels from IRIS to legally limit chemicals, set levels at federal cleanup sites or shutter factories that emit them, they don’t have to do any of those things. And so far, in St. John, no one has.

St. John isn’t the only place where the EPA has quantified health risks without providing a straightforward way to turn those numbers into enforceable regulation. According to the agency’s most recent assessment of air toxicity, which was released in August 2018 and is based on data from 2014, 109 census tracts had a risk of cancer above its official threshold of acceptability: 100 cancers in a million people.

Over the months I was looking at these hot spots, I noticed that three chemicals cause a large majority of the elevated cancer risk from air pollution around the country: chloroprene, ethylene oxide and formaldehyde. Of the 109 census tracts with elevated air pollution levels, only one would still have a risk greater than 100 cancers in a million people if the EPA were to set binding limits on these three chemicals.

But that hasn’t happened. And in the absence of federal action (which predates the current administration), it has fallen to affected residents to take on local polluters. In Willowbrook, Illinois, a well-to-do, largely white suburb of Chicago, people living near a factory that emitted another air pollutant IRIS recently assessed, ethylene oxide, had a rare success. In February, after residents protested, their state environmental agency closed the factory, which had used the chemical to sterilize medical equipment.

Other polluted communities haven’t been able to vanquish their local polluters. In many places where cancer risk from air pollution is elevated, people aren’t even aware of the danger. And even when residents know about and call attention to the problem, their efforts have not been as well received as the Willowbrook residents’ were.

A community group also formed in St. John to protest the air pollution in 2016. But there, where 90% of residents are African-American and per capita income is just over $17,000 a year, those protests have largely fallen on deaf ears. Last month, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality asked Denka, the company that releases chloroprene into St. John, to show it had reduced its emissions to 15% of the amount released in 2014. Denka promised to meet these goals in January of 2017, but failed. This month, the state indicated, finally, that it might soon sue the company.

In St. John and other places with toxic air pollution, residents are running into a hard truth: The companies that release the carcinogens often have more sway than they do. The manufacturers of all three chemicals responsible for most of the elevated cancer risk from air pollution have been working hard to make sure their products stay in regulatory limbo.

Denka asked IRIS to “correct” its assessment of chloroprene by changing its classification from a “probable” to “suggestive” human carcinogen and replacing the safety limit for chloroprene with one that is 156 times higher. IRIS denied that request in January 2018; Denka has since asked the agency to again reconsider its assessment. In the meantime, local authorities have cited the industry efforts as a reason not to limit emissions.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents several ethylene oxide manufacturers, has also requested that the EPA raise the safety levels IRIS set for that chemical and change the values that were used to calculate the air toxicity report.

The third-biggest contributor to the elevated cancer risk nationwide, formaldehyde, is also the subject of intense pressure within the EPA. According to a report that the Government Accountability Office released in March, the assessment of that chemical, which is used in building materials, glue and fabrics, and has been linked to cancers, was withheld from publication—along with 10 others. It’s worth noting that the Trump appointee who now oversees IRIS, David Dunlap, used to represent formaldehyde manufacturers on a panel of the American Chemistry Council as the director of policy and regulatory affairs for Koch Industries.

In an administration that has been defined by its science denial and regulatory rollbacks, the assessments that haven’t led to enforceable protections—or have been kept from the public entirely—are in one sense just another example of a government captured by industry. But for some in St. John, the failure to act is a matter of life and death.

Two years after I first wrote about St. John, the people there are still breathing in carcinogens. According to the 2018 National Air Toxics Report, this little area by the Mississippi River still has the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation. This time, between ethylene oxide, which emanates from a local Union Carbide plant, chloroprene and 43 other industrial chemicals, the risk is up to 1,505 cancers per million people—almost 50 times the national average. Some residents I wrote about in my first story have died.

For the rest of the people in St. John and the other places facing high cancer risks, there is still hope. The EPA has already done most of the hard work, studying and measuring the chemicals that threaten the lives of people around the country. Now they just have to get over their anti-regulatory bias, act on their own science and get rid of them.

— © 2019 The New York Times

Published: 25-06-2019 09:25

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