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Reason Foundation

Toxic Activism

Air pollution has been solved as a long-term problem

Joel Schwartz
July 8, 2004

According to the latest results from EPA's Toxics Release Inventory toxic releases rose 5 percent in 2002 when compared with the previous year. Environmental activists are practically jubilant, claiming this is the smoking gun showing that the Bush administration has rolled back environmental regulations and stopped enforcing the few that remain.

But reports of the death of environmental regulation are premature. The apparent increase in toxic releases results from emissions reported by a single copper smelter. The facility shut down in 2002, and dismantling it created "waste" required to be reported in the TRI. Excluding that one facility, toxic releases actually declined 3 percent in 2002.

Even if environmentalists were right about the increase in TRI emissions, they might have reflected on the fact that toxic releases increased about 10 percent between 1996 and 1997 on President Clinton's watch. But like the purported uptick in 2002, this factoid has little import for public health. TRI is actually a poor data source for making inferences about the amount of chemicals entering the environment, emission trends over time, or the risks posed to the public. On the other hand, other more comprehensive data show that emissions have been declining and that these declines will continue.

Here's why the TRI doesn't tell us what we need to know:

First, "toxic release" is misleading. Two-thirds of toxic releases in the TRI are not actually released at all, but instead represent solid or liquid waste that is either disposed of on site or by a waste processor, recycled, or burned to produce energy. The 10 percent increase in 1997 becomes a 10 percent decrease when looking only at emissions to air and to surface waters -- a more relevant measure of pollution put into the general environment. By this same measure, toxic releases decreased one percent in 2002.

Second, most chemical releases are not even reported in the TRI. Motor vehicles are not included, nor are businesses that use less than 10,000 pounds of a given chemical. Most non-manufacturing businesses are also not required to report. Some toxic chemicals are not included. For example, power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide exceed all TRI-reported air emissions by a factor of 20, but are not included in TRI reporting.

Third, emissions estimates are notoriously inaccurate, particularly for those that don't come out of a well-defined exhaust pipe. Numerous research studies have revealed serious inaccuracies in EPA's emission inventories, even for the few chemicals that have received substantial scrutiny. The problem is likely to be worse for most TRI chemicals.

In any case, emissions have been declining for those pollution sources that have been carefully measured, including motor vehicles and power plants. Furthermore, during the last 10 years, EPA has imposed "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" standards on dozens of major industries, capping their emissions at 60 to 99 percent below previous levels.

Fourth, even for chemicals emitted into air or water, the TRI has nothing to do with people's actual exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Many chemicals degrade rapidly in the environment or are diluted to such low concentrations that they are far below a level that could conceivably cause harm.

For example, most people probably know that hydrochloric acid (HCl) can cause serious injury. But as toxicologists like to say, "the dose makes the poison." HCl emissions are so diluted in the environment as to be inconsequential. The very highest ambient levels are 80 percent below EPA's "reference concentration," a safety level set more than 99 percent below the level expected to have deleterious effects, even for chronic exposure. Typical HCl levels range from zero to a small fraction of peak levels.

And although power plants emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which aren't even included in TRI, levels of these chemicals in the environment are far below EPA's safety limits and continue to decline.

Fifth, TRI generates huge, scary numbers for the amount of chemicals released each year. Yet, the most common chemicals often pose the least risk, for example, the 600 million pounds of HCl or the 146 million pounds of methanol emitted into the air in 2002. Just these two chemicals alone account for 46 percent of all TRI air emissions. What's important is not total emissions, but the amount and toxicity of the chemicals to which people are actually exposed.

Ambient pollution levels are a far more reliable gauge of both pollution trends and potential chemical exposure. EPA and state regulators monitor many pollutants at dozens to more than a thousand sites around the United States and all types of pollution have steadily declined.

These declines will continue. Despite activist and media claims that the Clean Air Act has been gutted or rolled back, for better or worse traditional command-and-control air quality regulation is alive and well. The Bush administration has for the most part continued the policies of the Clinton administration. Indeed, the Bush EPA recently implemented regulations adopted by the Clinton administration that reduce power plant nitrogen oxides emissions by 60 percent and automobile emissions by 70 to 90 percent. EPA is also implementing regulations that require a 90 percent reduction in diesel truck emissions in 2007 and in off-road diesel equipment in 2010, along with ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel.

These and other regulations will progressively eliminate almost all remaining air pollution during the next 20 years or so, as the vehicle fleet turns over to cleaner models and as industrial sources continue to install pollution controls. Air pollution has been solved as a long-term problem by actions we've already taken.

Despite the shortcomings of TRI and the realities of air pollution monitoring data and regulatory policy, the latest TRI data prompted the National Environment Trust to proclaim "the era of big government may be over, but the era of toxic pollution is back." NET has it exactly backwards.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct fellow at Reason Foundation and visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute.

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