Archives for category: Air

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a sample from Day 3 of their 8-day series.

A more accurate and thorough air-monitoring network is necessary to assess human health risks and support enforcement of environmental regulations. And that’s especially true in rural areas where few monitors now exist.

“We do not have the kind of robust monitoring network we need nationally,” said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. “And we never have enough monitors in environmental justice areas, poorer areas, and rural areas that cannot protect themselves as well.”

State Department of Environmental Protection documents show that only seven of the 18 ambient air-quality monitors in 13 western counties measure levels of nearly invisible particulates — known as PM2.5 because they are smaller than 2.5 micrometers — that can be inhaled deeply into human lungs and cause or aggravate a variety of health problems, including asthma and cardiac and respiratory disease.

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a sample from Day 2 of their 8-day series.

In many places around Western Pennsylvania residents see clusters of death and clusters of people sickened by cancer or heart and lung diseases.

And, like Lee Lasich, a Clairton resident, they’re frustrated that government health and environmental agencies don’t see them too, don’t do something about the problems and don’t take a tougher stance on enforcement of air pollution regulations.

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Health mortality data from 2000 through 2008 found that 14,636 more people died from heart and respiratory disease and lung cancer in 14 Western Pennsylvania counties than national rates would predict, or 12,833 after adjusting for excess smoking in the region. And the yearlong investigation found numerous people throughout the region who talked about what seemed like unnatural and unexplained clusters of illnesses and death in their communities.

This overlap of high mortality rates and pollution raises questions about whether there is a causal relationship. The question has not been definitively answered, but for the people who live among these clusters, the connection seems clear.

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When it comes to particulate pollution, what you can’t see can hurt you.

“The stuff now is more insidious but much harder to perceive,” said Lester B. Lave, the Carnegie Mellon University economics professor who pioneered pollution mortality research in the 1970s. “There is no rotten egg smell. There is no dirt. It is less easily perceived. People are usually astonished that Pittsburgh still is one of the worst, but air pollution is continuing.”

Studies estimate that pollution kills 20,000 to 60,000 each year in the United States. Even at the lower range, pollution deaths would equal the nation’s annual rate of homicides.

The upper range would equal traffic fatalities and suicides combined and rank pollution as the nation’s eighth leading cause of death, just behind diabetes — another disease pollution has been linked with — and just ahead of the combined category of influenza and pneumonia.

And what’s true about pollution deaths holds true about particulate pollution: Both remain largely imperceptible to the general public.

Science to the rescue

For the past 40 years, science time and again has implicated particle pollution as a major killer.

In 1970, Dr. Lave and Eugene B. Seskin for the first time calculated health damage from pollution. Their subsequent book, “Air Pollution and Human Health,” published in 1977, found not only “a close association between air pollution and mortality,” but determined the relationship to be substantial.

Drs. Lave and Seskin’s work stirred such controversy that it prompted an effort to get Dr. Lave fired from his teaching position. But their science stood the test of time and helped inspire major epidemiological studies in subsequent decades.

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has just completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania.  Here is a sample from Day 1 of their 8-day series.

Numerous studies show that southwestern Pennsylvania has poor air quality and a yearlong Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation has found that those pollution problems remain far from solved in communities such as Shippingport and Monaca, Bellevue and Sewickley, Masontown and Clearfield, Cranberry and Bridgeville, Pittsburgh and hundreds of others.

At the same time, the Post-Gazette’s review and analysis of state Department of Health mortality statistics shows that 14,636 more people died from heart disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer in the region from 2000 through 2008 than national mortality rates for those diseases would predict.

Those diseases have been linked to air pollution exposure.

After adjusting for slightly higher smoking rates in Pennsylvania, the total number of excess deaths from those three diseases is 12,833. That’s still a more than 10 percent higher mortality rate overall than would be expected in the population of approximately 3 million people in 14 counties, based on national risk rates for those three diseases.

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The Post-Gazette mapped the mortality rates for heart and lung disease and lung cancer for each of 746 municipalities in the 14-county region and found higher rates around many of the region’s 16 coal-fired power plants and 150 other companies considered by the EPA as major stationary sources of pollution emissions. High mortality rates also turned up irregularly in the “plume shadows” of the utilities and industrial sources, that is the downwind area where their emissions can be transported.

The mortality mapping, while not establishing any direct cause-and-effect link to any single or specific pollution source, shows associations that are consistent with accepted scientific health risk models and formulas used by the EPA and other pollution research scientists. It indicates that pollution may play as big a role in the region’s high mortality rates for those three diseases as Pall Malls, pilsners and pierogies.

“The maps do actually form some evidence that reinforces the literature that coal burning does have those effects,” said Conrad Dan Volz, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities and an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health.

He noted that the mortality rates from 2000 through 2008 are “lagging indicators” that could reflect past pollution exposure for the region’s population. But they might also show the health impacts of continuing exposure and that regulations aren’t as effective as they could be.

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On Sunday morning U.S. Steel finally shut down its Donora mills. By that afternoon, when a rainstorm blew into the valley ending the inversion and clearing the pollution, 22 people had died in Donora and the town of Webster, just across the Mon. Almost half of Donora’s 13,000 residents were sickened, and hundreds were evacuated or hospitalized.

“Dr. Clarence Mills, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati, said at the time that if the inversion had lasted another day, hundreds more would have died and life as we know it would not exist in Donora,” Dr. Stacey said.

In the months that followed, an additional 50 people died in Donora over the number that would normally be expected. And the town’s mortality rate remained significantly higher than that of neighboring towns in the Mon Valley for a decade.

U.S. Steel refused to accept blame at the time and still has not turned over to researchers its archival data related to the fatal smog.

Lawsuits totaling $4.5 million in claims were filed by more than 100 Donora residents against U. S. Steel. All were settled in 1951 for $256,000, according to a new book, “The Polluters,” written by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter.

“No one got rich,” said Dr. Stacey. “After the lawyers were paid, most people had enough to buy a television set.”

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Although FirstEnergy sent workers through the affected communities to power-wash the ashy black residue from the exterior of homes, outdoor deck and lawn furniture and vehicles, and cleaned indoor carpeting — and did so at Gracie’s grandparents’ home in Raccoon Township — it did not remove the sand pile where she continued to play daily, and, as was her wont, put things in her mouth.

Then, the lawsuit states, on Aug. 7, 16 days after what had become known in the community as the “black rain event,” FirstEnergy notified local officials and made public announcements recommending that farmers not allow livestock to graze in fields carpeted with the soot and that residents not use or eat from their home gardens for a year. In the weeks that followed, while company workers mowed the affected hay and yards, and harvested and paid for backyard garden produce, Gracie’s long brown hair was falling out in big clumps.

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Houston Traffic

From: The New York Times:

The tiny black particles released into the atmosphere by burning fuels are far more powerful agents of global warming than had previously been estimated, some of the world’s most prominent atmospheric scientists reported in a study issued on Tuesday.

These particles, which are known as black carbon and are the major component of soot, are the second most important contributor to global warming, behind only carbon dioxide, wrote the 31 authors of the study, published online by The Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.

The new estimate of black carbon’s heat-trapping power is about double the one made in the last major report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007. And the researchers said that if indirect warming effects of the particles are factored in, they may be trapping heat at almost three times the previously estimated rate.

The new calculation adds urgency to efforts to curb the production of black carbon, which is released primarily by diesel engines in the industrialized world and by primitive cook stoves and kerosene lamps in poorer nations. Natural phenomena like forest fires also produce it.

Read entire article here.

From Wired:

Since returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, an untold number of soldiers have come down with puzzling health problems. Chronic bronchitis. Neurological defects. Even cancer. Many of them are pointing the finger at a single culprit: The open-air “burn pits” that incinerated trash — from human waste to computer parts — on military bases overseas.

Pentagon officials have consistently reassured personnel that there was no “specific evidence” connecting the two. But now, only days after Danger Room uncovered a memo suggesting that Army officials knew how dangerous the pits were, an animal study is offering up new scientific evidence that links burn pits to depleted immune systems.

“The dust doesn’t only appear to cause lung inflammation,” says Dr. Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonology and allergies, and the researcher who led this latest study. “It also destroys the body’s own T-cells.” Those cells are at the core of the body’s immune system, “like a bulletproof vest against illnesses,” Szema tells Danger Room. When they’re depleted, an individual is much more prone to myriad conditions.

For scientists, trying to establish a definitive connection between those diffuse health problems and the pits has been exceedingly difficult to do. Most notably because the Department of Defense, as a report issued by the Institutes of Medicine noted last year, didn’t collect adequate evidence — like what the pits burned and which soldiers were exposed — for researchers to draw any meaningful conclusions about the impact of the open-air incinerators. Szema’s study is only on 15 mice, so it’s by no means definitive. But it is an important first step.

Regardless, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Pentagon officials were aware of the risk posed by the pits. Another memo (.pdf), written by Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis in 2006 and obtained by Danger Room, warned of “an acute health hazard” to personnel stationed at Iraq’s Balad air base. “It is amazing,” he noted, “that the burn pit has been able to operate … without significant engineering controls being put in place.”

But as recently as yesterday, when asked about the leaked Army memo obtained by Danger Room (which cited a risk of ”long-term adverse health conditions” from the pits), Pentagon spokesperson George Little told reporters that “we do not have specific evidence that ties these kinds of disposal facilities to health issues.”

Perhaps not. But researchers just got way, way closer. A team, led by Dr. Szema at Stony Brook University, this week revealed to Danger Room the results of their ongoing investigations that are trying to directly link health problems to the air emitted by burn pits. And the results should cause those who served near the pits — which burned trash at most major bases in Iraq and Afghanistan during at least some period over the last decade — to be concerned.

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From U.S. News and World Report, an article about Upstream expert, Dr. Frederica Perera’s most recent study:

Women exposed to higher levels of certain air pollutants while pregnant are more likely to have children with anxiety, depression and attention problems by ages 6 and 7, new research suggests.

“This study provides new evidence that prenatal exposure to air pollution at levels encountered in New York City can adversely affect child behavior,” said Frederica Perera, a professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

She led the new study, published online March 22 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The researchers looked at pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). They are created by the burning of fossil fuels and are common in urban environments. Traffic emissions are a major source of these pollutants.

The study is believed to be the first to link behavior problems in school-age children with two measures of prenatal PAH exposure: air concentrations and a PAH-specific marker found in mothers’ blood samples and umbilical cord blood. The PAH, inhaled by the mom during pregnancy, can cross the placenta, experts know.

Perera’s team followed the children of 253 inner-city women who gave birth between 1999 and 2006. None of the mothers smoked.

The researchers measured the concentrations of PAH in the environment of the mothers for 48 hours during trimester two or three. They also took blood samples from the mothers and the umbilical cords.

In addition, the women answered questions about their children’s behavior, including describing any attention problems, anxiety or depression. The attention problems would not qualify as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Perera noted.

The investigators found a link between higher PAH exposure levels and behavior problems. “Symptoms of anxiety and depression were 45 percent higher in the higher exposure group versus the lower,” Perera said. Attention problems were 28 percent greater in the higher PAH exposure group.

When the researchers took into account other sources of pollutants such as tobacco smoke and diet, the link remained. However, although the study found an association between prenatal PAH exposure and childhood behavior problems, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

The level of problems were those that could result in referral to a doctor for further evaluation, Perera noted.

Several mechanisms could explain the link, she said. Oxidative stress is one. Or, the chemicals may be “endocrine disrupters, which are capable of affecting the normal signaling that occurs in early brain development.”

Perera plans to follow the children until they are age 12.

“The study by itself is not convincing to me,” said Dr. Victor Klein, an obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in high-risk pregnancies and is director of patient safety and risk reduction at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. He reviewed the study and said that “further research has to be done.”

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Read other Upstream posts about Dr. Perera’s work, including her Upstream interview videos, click here.

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From HEAN:

The Health and Environment Action Network (HEAN) is a national and locally driven effort committed to securing the right of all people to clean air and water. A project of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health (the Alliance) and funded through a grant from the W.F. Kellogg Foundation, HEAN’s goal is to identify health risks from air and water pollution and mobilize community solutions.

At HEAN’s four partner sites around the country, volunteers use Eco-Pacs (mobile pollution sensors, GPS devices, and cameras) to measure air and water pollution in the community. Communities use these measurements, mapped on Google Earth images, with pictures and videos to tell their community’s environmental health story and formulate strategies to address environmental hazards.

Through HEAN, the Alliance and its partner sites are encouraging national and local action to improve the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health and well-being of communities.

 

 

From Reuters:

In a study of more than 4,000 black women in Los Angeles, those who lived in areas with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution were at increased risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.

The researchers, led by Patricia Coogan at Boston University, found that black women living in neighborhoods with high levels of nitrogen oxides, pollutants found in traffic exhaust, were 25 percent more likely to develop diabetes and 14 percent more likely to develop hypertension than those living in sections with cleaner air.

Previous research has linked air pollution to health problems such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and even higher rates of death.

“The public health implications are huge,” said Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen, who studies the effects of air pollution at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, especially for black women, who have higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure than white women. He was not involved in the current work.

Forty-four percent of all black women in the U.S. have high blood pressure and about 11 percent have diabetes compared with 28 percent and roughly seven percent, respectively, of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black Americans also experience higher levels of air pollution than white Americans, according to the study authors.

For their investigation, published in Circulation, the researchers followed participants in the ongoing Black Women’s Health Study for 10 years. The women were mainly recruited from subscribers to Essence magazine, and none had diabetes or high blood pressure when the study began in 1995.

Over the course of a decade, 531 women developed high blood pressure and 183 women were diagnosed with diabetes.

The findings on their relative risks for those conditions take into account several other potential influences, including how heavy the women were, whether they smoked and other stressors, including noise levels at participants’ homes.

Although researchers measured average pollution levels near participants’ homes for only one year of the ten-year study, Coogan told Reuters Health that air pollution patterns remained relatively constant over the entire study period.

While Coogan and her colleagues estimated nitrogen oxide concentrations near participants’ homes, they did not account for commuting habits or exposure to air pollution at work. According to the researchers, Americans, on average, spend about 70 percent of their time at home.

In addition to measuring nitrogen oxides, a proxy for traffic pollution, the researchers evaluated levels of fine particulate matter. Many sources contribute to this type of air pollution, including traffic, power plants and industrial processes.

Women who lived in areas with higher fine particulate exposures also faced an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, although statistically the link was weak and could have been due to chance.

Previous reports have suggested that air pollution particles small enough to make their way into the blood stream may contribute to a narrowing of blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure and reduce sensitivity to insulin.

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Image from Flickr.

From The Independent:

Olympic athletes could suffer impaired performance times and become ill as a result of London’s unacceptably high levels of air pollution, leading respiratory scientists are warning.

Fears are growing that during the Games, beginning in July, athletes, who take in much more air than a sedentary person, will take in high levels of pollutants such as particulates, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, and could suffer pulmonary irritation, chest pain and decreased lung capacity. Such a situation would be a disaster for London when the city is on show to the world.

But it is considered a real possibility in certain weather conditions, as levels in the capital of several pollutants are so high that they are in breach of EU limits, putting the UK at risk of a £300m fine.

London has the highest levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the EU, and has received a series of legal warnings for failing to comply with European laws governing PM10s, tiny specks of particulate matter 10 microns across (a micron is a millionth of a metre). The capital’s air quality is also affected by the gas ozone, created by pollutants from vehicle exhausts reacting with sunlight.

Experts say that the risk for the Games is that in certain summer weather conditions – in particular, a “temperature inversion” in which on still, hazy days, a layer of warm air traps pollutants close to the ground – the pollution levels could go so high as to affect athletes’ health and performance.

Temperature inversions are common, and affect people more in the summer, according to the Met Office. “It’s not a rare thing. It can happen all the time,” a Met Office spokesman said yesterday. “If we have a high-pressure temperature inversion period, there may well be high levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide and these could induce coughs, breathlessness and other problems,” said Professor Sir Malcolm Green, spokesman for the British Lung Association.

Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, said: “If we’re unlucky we’re going to get bad publicity for our air quality. Athletes, such as marathon runners and cyclists, need to breathe very hard. If it’s a high-pollution day, they will be taking in large amounts of pollution. Their chests may tighten up, they may feel pain and shortness of breath, and for certain conditions such as asthma they may need medication.

“A few athletes may not attain the performances they hoped to and they might spend a few days feeling unwell. From an athletic point of view, they will not be at the best of their ability.”

Simon Birkett, director of the campaign group Clean Air in London, said yesterday: “The Mayor of London [Boris Johnson] needs to show the world that the Olympic city is determined to tackle this massive public health crisis by banning the most polluting vehicles from the Olympic route network.”

However, there is no sign of London taking the drastic action that was seen at the last Olympics in Beijing, when the Chinese government issued a blanket ban on more than half the city’s cars and shut down polluting industries, at a cost of £6bn.

Mr Johnson introduced a long-term air quality strategy for the capital in December 2010 but this is aimed at improvements in the medium to long term. An update to the strategy, introduced in May last year, includes several measures designed to have a shorter-term impact, including a ban on motor vehicle engine idling at priority locations, the use of dust suppressants and “green infrastructure”, such as screens of trees.

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An Al Jazeera report on London’s air pollution problem (and one partial solution):

From al.com:

Alabama’s coal-fired power plants dispose of almost 15 million pounds of toxic metals in on-site ash ponds, more than plants in any other state. Alabama Power Co.’s Miller Steam Plant in western Jefferson County sends more toxic metals to its ash pond than any other plant in the country, more than 5 million pounds annually.

That’s according to an analysis of data in the U.S. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory published Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy organization.

The nation’s attention turned to coal ash ponds three years ago, when a pond associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured, flooding 300 acres of the countryside with contaminated sludge that inundated homes and fields and flowed into the Emory and Clinch rivers, filling in large areas of the rivers and resulting in fish kills.

In the aftermath of the spill, industry and governmental agencies increased scrutiny of the ponds. Pond usage is one method of disposing of the ash left over from burning coal. That ash contains traces of such metals as arsenic, chromium and lead that occur naturally in the coal. Wet ash is pumped to the ponds, where the water is held so the contaminants settle out of suspension.

Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said Miller’s No.1 ranking and top 20 rankings for its Gorgas plant in Walker County, its Gaston plant in Shelby County and the Barry plant near Mobile are mostly a function of the size of the plants. Miller is one of the nation’s largest coal-fired plants.

Alabama Power chose to build larger plants that burn more coal, he said, while another utility might have multiple plants that would add up to a similar volume. Sznajderman said the ponds are part of the plants’ environmental controls and the company has a long track record of operating them safely.

“We did have our ash impoundments inspected and received a satisfactory rating and that is the highest rating you can get,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we have operated these ash impoundments for decades to contain these materials onsite at the plant safely. We have a vigorous inspection program to ensure these facilities are inspected regularly.”

In addition to the assessment EPA made of the condition of ash pond dams across the country, the agency also classified ash ponds by the level of hazard posed if dams were to fail.

All but one of the Alabama Power ponds were classified as a significant risk, meaning that, if a rupture occurred, environmental and property damage would result. One ash pond at the Gaston plant in Shelby County’s Wilsonville is classified as a high hazard, meaning that loss of life could occur if a dam broke. All the ponds lie near waterways that receive treated discharge from the ponds.

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Image from Flickr.

From The Province:

Public elementary schools in low-income neighbourhoods are more likely to be located near a major road or highway, exposing students to higher levels of air and noise pollution, according to a new B.C. study.

The study, which examined the proximity of 1,556 schools to a major thoroughfare in Canada’s 10 largest cities, found that more than 22 per cent of schools located in the poorest neighbourhoods lie within 75 metres of a major road, compared to 13 per cent for the richest areas.

“The relationship between income and proximity was quite consistent across cities,” said Simon Fraser University assistant professor Ryan Allen, one of the co-authors of the study, published this week in the International Journal of Health Geographics.

* * *

One possibility for the correlation, speculated Allen, could be that high volumes of vehicular traffic make a neighbourhood less desirable, driving property values down and making them more affordable to low-income residents.

The study obtained addresses for elementary schools in Toronto, Hamilton, Mississauga, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. The schools where then geocoded and their proximity to the nearest major road calculated.

“About 16 per cent of the schools we looked at is close enough to a major road to have elevated pollution and noise,” said Allen, a health-sciences professor.

* * *

Research has shown that increased exposure to traffic-generated air pollution is linked to reduced lung functions, asthma and decreased cognitive functions. Noise pollution is also linked to increased blood pressure and reduced sleep quality.

The study does not list schools and its distances to major roads, but authors said Vancouver schools near or along Knight Street or Kingsway would be representative of schools that fall within the 75 metres radius.

A 2003 city of Vancouver report on the Clark/Knight Corridor had noted that while ambient sound levels in classrooms during lessons should be 35 decibels, the cacophony on Knight Street exceeds 70 decibels.

“It would be a challenge to meet the relevant criteria (< 35 dBA) in classrooms, even with the windows tightly closed,” said the report.

Allen said he hopes the study increases awareness of where schools, daycares, and other similar facilities are built in the future.

“I’d like to see environmental quality be a consideration,” he said. “I think we have an obligation to provide a safe environment for our kids to grow up in.”

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Image from Flickr.

From :

The American Lung Association released this television advertisement that describes the impacts that “secondhand smog” has on the health of our kids who live and breathe far from the smoke stacks that emit the pollutants. Join the fight at http://www.fightingforair.org.

From the Associated Press:

When winter comes to Utah and atmospheric conditions trap a soup of pollutants close to the ground, doctors say it turns every resident in the Salt Lake basin into the equivalent of a cigarette smoker.

For days or weeks at a time, an inversion layer in which high pressure systems can trap a roughly 1,300-foot-thick layer of cold air — and the pollutants that build up inside it — settles over the basin, leaving some people coughing and wheezing.

“There’s no safe level of particulate matter you can breathe,” said Salt Lake City anesthesiologist Cris Cowley, who is among a number of Utah doctors raising the alarm over some of the nation’s worst wintertime air.

The doctors and a lobby group of Utah mothers are blaming a company that mines nearly a mile deep in the largest open pit in the world for contributing one-third of Salt Lake County’s pollution. The rest is from tailpipe and other emissions.

They have filed a lawsuit against Kennecott Utah Copper, accusing it of violating the U.S. Clean Air Act. The company operates with the consent of state regulators who enforce the federal law.

The company is the No. 1 industrial air polluter along Utah’s heavily populated 120-mile Wasatch Front and operates heavy trucks and power and smelter plants. It says the claims are “without merit.”

Kennecott cites the blessing of Utah regulators for expanded operations and new controls that hold emissions steady.

Utah’s chief air regulator, however, acknowledged Kennecott is technically violating a 1994 plan adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that limited the company to hauling 150 million tons of ore a year out of the Bingham Canyon Mine.

Utah has twice allowed the company to exceed that limit, most recently to 260 million tons, as the company moves to expand a mine in the mountains west of Salt Lake City. In each case, Utah sought EPA’s consent, but the EPA didn’t take any action.

The lawsuit could force EPA’s hand, said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Bird said the old limit would defeat changes Kennecott made to curb dust and emissions since 1994.

The EPA rules that set production instead of emissions limits puts many companies in a similarly “awkward position” and undermines confidence in Utah’s air pollution permits, Bird said.

Kennecott disputes the doctors’ figure and says it contributes about 16 percent of Salt Lake County’s overall emissions.

An examination by The Associated Press of emissions figures provided by Kennecott to state regulators shows the company’s share of pollutants ranges from 65 percent of Salt Lake County’s sulfur dioxide emissions to 18 percent of its particulates.

Particulates are tiny flecks of dust that doctors say can attract heavy metals. The particulates are ingested through the nose and lungs and can become lodged in brain tissue. They are especially damaging to the development of children.

Medical research has found that the first few minutes of exposure to air pollution does the most damage, with many people’s bodies able to react and fight off longer bouts of exposure, the doctors said.

Yet exposure to dust, soot and gaseous chemicals constricts vessels and send blood pressure soaring, making some people’s hearts flutter and spiking emergency hospital visits while putting fetuses in the womb at risk, the doctors say.

More.

Image from Flickr.

From iWatch News:

Three years into Lisa Jackson’s tenure as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than a dozen formal complaints alleging air pollution is disproportionately harming low-income, minority communities remain unresolved. Each of these complaints has languished — in some instances, for more than a decade — in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights despite Jackson’s stated commitment to environmental justice.

“We must include environmental justice principles in all of our decisions … especially with regard to children,” Jackson wrote in a January 2010 memo outlining the agency’s top priorities.

But EPA documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and interviews with activists and residents reveal that the administrator’s words have brought little relief to underprivileged communities overburdened with pollution.

The Office of Civil Rights — whose leader reports directly to Jackson — has in its files a total of 38 unresolved complaints dating to July 1994, according to a list published on the office’s website following a Freedom of Information Act request from iWatch News. Fifteen of these OCR complaints involve air pollution.

The EPA did not explain why so many cases remain unresolved. However, a spokeswoman said in an email that “the Agency has made meaningful progress on many of the complaints that remain on its docket.”

Environmental justice advocates are dubious. “The backlog doesn’t seem greatly improved, and it’s not clear what processes they use to evaluate the complaints” said Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. “Why is that progress?”

Poverty and pollution

Tammy Foster, a 39-year-old housewife turned environmental activist from Corpus Christi, Texas, has had several miscarriages in the 17 years that a complaint alleging discrimination in her community has been pending at OCR. Doctors don’t know why she’s been unable to conceive, she said. “If I had to guess, I’d say living on Refinery Row,” a 10-mile stretch of oil refineries and other industrial plants.

Foster blames emissions from the plants that border the Dona Park neighborhood on three sides for a birth defect that causes her to average four kidney infections per year and for regular outbreaks of hives and blisters. “When I’m gone, I feel great,” she said.

Dona Park, where Foster has lived most of her life, is about 70 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey found that about a quarter of all families in the community live below the poverty line.

In Ford Heights, Ill., a solidly African-American exurb of Chicago, about 40 percent of all families are in poverty, according to the American Community Survey. In April 2006, residents filed a complaint — still unresolved by OCR — against the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for failing to act on Geneva Energy, LLC, which bought a tire-burning power plant located only blocks from a community center that housed a preschool program.

The plant has operated intermittently due to financial and environmental problems that include a long list of air pollution violations. “The only way that you would know [it was running] is that the smoke was in the air,” said Melva Smith-Weaver, who worked at the Head Start program in Ford Heights until 2007.

”There was quite a few children during that time that were asthmatic. You would expect to have out of 102 kids, one or two that are asthmatic, but we had quite a few — maybe 15 to 20.” In 2009, the preschool program moved to new location about a mile away, but middle school students still attend classes just down the road from the plant.

“This facility is clean and safe for the surrounding community,” said Geneva Energy CEO Ben Rose. He acknowledged the air pollution violations but said “there is little evidence that plants such as ours increase asthma attacks.” Rose said it’s “outrageous that this complaint wasn’t addressed immediately” by OCR.

Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin agreed. In an October letter to Jackson, he noted that Geneva Energy is the city’s biggest private employer and taxpayer. “This could have been dismissed after a brief investigation, lifting the cloud of uncertainty from the facility,” Griffin wrote.

The Corpus Christi and Ford Heights complaints are among at least 15 Clean Air Act cases pending with OCR; three of these cases date to the 1990s. Twenty-three other pending complaints allege violations of laws governing water pollution, toxic waste and pesticides.

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Image from Flickr.

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