Urban Air Toxics Report Shows Reduced Pollution in Communities

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.

   Click to Read the Report

Click to Read the Report

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Justice is Served

By Erin Heaney

Every community has the right to know what they are being exposed to. That’s why at the Clean Air Coalition (CAC), our mission is to develop grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns.  We’ve seen over the years that when leaders and residents have good data, they are better able to become strong advocates for their neighborhoods.


One example of this is our recent work to protect residents of Tonawanda, New York from dangerous air pollution. After CAC-led citizen science showed high levels of benzene in Tonawanda, New York originating from a foundry coke plant operated by Tonawanda Coke, residents mobilized to hold the plant accountable. They knocked on their neighbors’ doors, met with decision makers, and earned dozens of press hits. The public pressure generated by CAC members resulted in historic enforcement action against the plant.

In December of 2009, the US Department of Justice, the US EPA, NYS DEC and US Coast Guard executed a federal search warrant at Tonawanda Coke. Less than a week later the company’s environmental control manager was arrested.  On March 28th, 2013 a jury found Tonawanda Coke and the environmental contral manager guilty of violating the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the environmental control manager was also found guilty of obstructing justice. The company faces criminal fines in excess of $200 million and the company’s control manager faces up to 75 years in jail.

Now, we are working to ensure that the community has a voice in providing the court with project proposals from the community that may be funded in their community through a court ordered penalty. The Clean Air Coalition used a participatory budgeting process to identify potential projects for the court’s consideration Check out this short film on how the process worked!


The Tonawanda Coke case is an amazing example of how citizen science, access to environmental data, combined with community mobilization and strong support from the federal government can result in tangible results for communities on the margins.

But it all starts with community awareness. One tool we used to build this awareness among residents in the fight against Tonawanda Coke was the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI online database was developed by EPA to give communities more information about what’s released by large industry in their backyards.  I originally wrote about our first TRI training for residents in the region last year. Now, we have learned a lot and we want to share the lessons we learned with other communities. We’ve turned them into a training guide  that people like you can use to educate and train your communities.

The guide is divided into two sections. The first hour explores the movement and history that advocated for TRI and the rules that govern the program. The second half gives folks hands-on practice using the database and exploring the releases in their neighborhood.

We hope other communities throughout the country will use our guide to share information with impacted residents, educate policy makers and continue to build a movement for the environment. Enjoy!

About the author: Erin Heaney is the Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a grassroots organization that develops community leadership to win campaigns that advance public health and environmental justice. She has trained hundreds of grassroots leaders and won campaigns that have resulted in significant emissions reductions from some of the region’s largest polluters.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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For the Win: Benzene Challenge Yields a Solution

By Dustin Renwick

Illustration of a carbon nanotube.

EPA scientists monitor pollutants with odd names, but benzene stands out as one of most widely used chemicals in U.S. The compound ranks as a human carcinogen and an air pollutant found in sources including gasoline, vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke.

Current commercial benzene monitors work well, but the equipment is cumbersome and expensive. On the other hand, the cheap, portable technology that could allow you to test multiple highways in a day isn’t yet accurate enough for scientific research.

EPA organized a challenge for inventors and developers to help make benzene detection easier and less costly.

“One of our jobs is to communicate to the general public and those who are involved in new technologies what our interests are,” said Ron Williams, an EPA research chemist who worked on the team that designed the challenge.

The competition’s prize was recently awarded to Doug Corrigan, who has experience in physics, biochemistry and materials sciences and now works with technology-based economic development.

He said his experiences with different fields give him a figurative toolkit with pieces that sit ripe for remixing.

“It’s always satisfying to look at something and say, I have no clue how we’re going to work through that,” Corrigan said. “These challenges force you to sit down and learn new things.”

How He Did It

Corrigan’s solution used molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) and the measurement sensitivity of carbon nanotubes.

What does that mean?

If you created a mold of a raspberry pressed into wet plaster, you’d have a unique indentation. Other berries without that exact size and structure wouldn’t fit — similar to how a key pairs with its matching lock.

The same thing happens in MIPs, where scientists stamp a “key” compound, such as benzene, into a polymer. After the initial template is removed, benzene is the only molecule that will match that imprint, the “lock.”

Scientists also need a way to know when the key is in the lock, indicating benzene’s presence.

Nanotubes can measure small changes in electrical current, such as when a benzene molecule attaches to the MIP. Imagine rolling a sheet of chicken wire, and you have a good proxy for a nanotube, except the wall of a nanotube is one carbon atom wide. In this form, carbon exhibits those electrical properties not found in the graphite of pencils or the 3-D structure of diamonds.

But nanotubes don’t work well by themselves in air sampling monitors because too many gases create an information overload. In Corrigan’s design, the MIPs select the specific compound scientists want the nanotubes to measure.

The sensor arrangement can return measurements within a few minutes, and it all fits in a cost-effective package about the size of a large shoebox.

“When you consider the potential of molecularly imprinted polymers and carbon nanotubes for benzene sensors, that’s something you can fabricate,” said Eben Thoma, an EPA research scientist. “That’s mass production with a much lower cost potential.”

The EPA is now exploring methods for building prototypes of Corrigan’s design and transferring the technology to the public sector.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.