Our Lungs Labor in a Chemical Soup : Administration's Cleanup Goals Are Lofty, but Laws May Fall Far Short

David Doniger is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization

As the President and Congress debate changes to the Clean Air Act, a toxic cloud hangs over America.

Virtually every American is exposed. Tens of millions of people live near chemical plants, oil refineries, smelters, coke ovens and thousands of other industrial emitters of toxic pollutants. Well over 100 million people living in urban areas breathe a deadly "chemical soup" concocted from the emissions of factories and motor vehicles, from which they are not protected by conventional smog standards. And hundreds of miles downwind from pollution sources, a toxic rain contaminates major ecosystems like the Great Lakes, causing severe damage to fish and aquatic resources and indirectly endangering public health.

The magnitude of the emissions is staggering. Major industries reported dumping nearly 2.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the air during their "routine" operations in 1987. At least a comparable amount comes from millions of cars, trucks, buses and other urban sources. The Bush Administration puts the cancer death toll from these "routine" chemical emissions at 1,500 to 3,000 people each year.

In a recent report, "A Who's Who of American Toxic Air Polluters," the Natural Resources Defense Council identified nearly 4,500 factories in 46 states putting more than 360 million pounds of just 11 cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Thirty of these facilities reported emissions of 1 million pounds or more. The Environmental Protection Agency says there is no known safe level of exposure to these chemicals. Yet the EPA has put no curbs on these emissions.

To the cancer deaths must be added the toll of death and injury when "routine" operations give way to chemical accidents. More than 11,000 chemical accidents have already occurred in the United States in the 1980s, killing 309 people, injuring more than 11,300 others and requiring the evacuation of nearly a half a million people from their homes, schools and businesses. Seventeen of these chemical accidents had the potential to surpass the catastrophe in Bhopal, India, where a toxic gas cloud killed more than 3,000. But for the grace of good weather and good luck, even more people could have died here. Yet the EPA has no program to prevent these accidents.

The fact is that people receive their greatest toxic chemical exposure through the air--more than from toxic waste dumps, polluted drinking water or contaminated food. The same is true for the environment; well over half the toxic contaminants entering the Great Lakes are coming from the air. You drink about two quarts of water per day, but you breathe 15,000-20,000 quarts of air per day. You have some choice over the water you drink, but you have no choice over the air you breathe. It is time to stop treating the atmosphere as the nation's largest hazardous waste dump.

There are some signs of progress in Washington. All factions in the clean air debate, including President Bush, now agree that toxic air pollution is a major public health hazard. As Bush has said, "People who live near industrial facilities should not have to fear for their health."

But legislative proposals for curbing toxic air pollution vary greatly. One bill, introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.) and others, would make major strides forward in the fight to safeguard the public and the environment. The bill covers the full spectrum of toxic air releases, from routine to accidental; the full spectrum of sources, from factories to motor vehicles; and the full spectrum of harm, protecting resources like the Great Lakes as well as public health. Most important, the bill sets deadlines for reducing the added cancer risk from factory emissions below one chance in 1 million over a lifetime. One in 1 million is the EPA's own standard for the acceptable cancer risk for pesticide residues on food. There is no reason to tolerate danger that is tens, hundreds or even thousands of times greater from chemicals in the air.

Sadly, the same praise is not due President Bush's proposal. His goals are lofty. In announcing his plan, he said that "the very best control technology we have will determine the standards we set for these plants." But all signs are that the actual legislative language to be proposed will fall far short of requiring "the very best" controls. Worse, instead of solid health protection standards, the Administration is proposing a "cost-benefit" test under which your life could be forfeit if a government accountant thinks it will cost industry too much to save. Furthermore, the President's proposals were totally silent on chemical accident prevention and protection of the Great Lakes. There is still time, however, for the President to embrace the needed reforms.

Americans are fed up with the assault on their skies and their health. They are demanding action as never before. The time for strong action on the Clean Air Act is now.

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