By Janet McCabe
Reducing toxic air emissions has been a priority for EPA, and I am proud of the progress that we’ve made in communities across the country. Today, we released our Urban Air Toxics Report to Congress – the second of two reports required under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to inform Congress of progress in reducing public health risks from urban air toxics. I want to share some of the highlights with you.
The report shows significant nationwide reductions in toxic chemicals in the air in our communities. That’s good news for public health, because the Clean Air Act identifies 187 hazardous air pollutants, about half of which are known or suspected to cause cancer. Many can cause other health effects, such as damage to the immune, respiratory, neurological, reproductive and developmental systems.
And while emissions of air toxics affect everyone living in this country, the data tell us that the risk can be higher for people living in cities, and particularly those in low income and minority neighborhoods.
But, we’re making significant progress: Since 1994, we found a 66 percent reduction in benzene and a nearly 60 percent reduction in mercury from sources like coal-fired power plants. Levels of lead – a dangerous neurotoxin that can affect the brain development of children – are down nearly 85 percent in outdoor air. The report also finds that we’ve removed about three million tons of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) per year from the air in our communities by controlling emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes. We’ve also reduced toxics air pollution from businesses like dry cleaners and autobody shops that are located right in our neighborhoods.
And we’re continuing our work to make communities healthier. For example, we recently proposed updates to emission standards for petroleum refineries. There are nearly 150 petroleum refineries across the country and the facilities are often located near communities. Our proposed standards would reduce emissions of chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene by 5,600 tons per year. For the first time, EPA is proposing to require fenceline monitoring to help ensure that emissions standards are met and nearby communities are protected. The data will be available for the public to see – transparency helps the community understand what’s in the air and helps with compliance. Common-sense strategies such as these will help us further reduce toxic air pollution and protect public health in communities across United States.
Administrator McCarthy has said that, “EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment is driven by a fundamental belief that regardless of who you are or where you come from, we all have a right to clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthy land to call our home.” EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation works everyday to to address environmental inequity in minority and low income communities and to give everyone the opportunity to participate fully and meaningfully in the regulatory process.
We are working closely with state, local and tribal agencies to promote local, area-wide and regional strategies as we continue to address air toxics. We also support a number of community-based programs that help residents understand, prioritize and reduce exposures to toxic pollutants in their neighborhood. I am very proud of the accomplishments outlined in today’s report, but I know we still have much to do to bring clean air to our communities. I am excited to continue our work with communities, businesses and state, local and tribal governments to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals and protect public health and the environment.
About the author: Janet McCabe is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), having previously served as the OAR’s Principal Deputy to the Assistant Administrator.