Airborne toxics from transportation and woodstoves contribute more to the risks of getting cancer or respiratory illnesses in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties than airborne toxics from industry, according to recent data.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment — also known as NATA data — uses measurements taken nationwide in 2011 to paint a picture of areas regulators may need to take a closer look at based on cancer and health risks.
The Northwest Clean Air Agency, which monitors and partially regulates air quality in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, analyzed the local data to see whether the industries it regulates might need closer study.
What the agency found is the NATA data shows cancer risk associated with air toxics from industrial sources are considerably lower than those from transportation.
“They’re a fraction of the health risk as far as human influences go, compared to wood smoke and transportation, when talking about toxics,” said Katie Skipper, Northwest Clean Air Agency spokeswoman.
This sort of reinforces that we’re on the right track.
Katie Skipper, Northwest Clean Air Agency spokeswoman
Many of those toxics come from cars and trucks driving on roads, airplanes, ships, trains, construction and farm equipment off the roads, and the “secondary” toxics that result when those chemicals all mix up in the air.
Those secondary toxics make up about 47 percent of the airborne toxics nationwide, while both on- and off-road transportation sources were about 25 percent, said Suzanne Skadowski, an EPA spokeswoman.
The 187 toxic pollutants in the data set fall in a different category than the six “criteria pollutants” the Northwest Clean Air Agency monitors and regulates through permitting under the Clean Air Act.
The agency regulates industries such as the BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries, which need to have permits as businesses that release pollutants into the air.
The agency also can regulate excessive chimney smoke, though people don’t need a permit to use wood to heat their homes.
The agency does not, however, have authority to regulate transportation emissions, which are typically tackled with changes at the manufacturing level, Skipper said.
“We have leverage only with those stationary sources,” Skipper said.
The NATA data shows risk by calculating the number of people per million that are likely to get cancer or respiratory illnesses when exposed to the levels of toxins in the air. The EPA warns not to get too caught up in the numbers, but rather to use them as a starting point for further study.
“This is a health risk based on a 10,000-foot view,” Skipper said. “You can’t really compare county to county, you can’t even really compare city to city. It’s not a granular analysis of all pollution sources.”
Through modeling, the data can help engineers and policymakers see patterns. For example, the data show toxics focused around the highways, Skipper said.
From that 10,000-foot perspective, the Northwest Clean Air Agency and the businesses it regulates in this area are doing a good job of maintaining good air quality, she said.
“I think if what it showed was there was a problem and it was one of the sources we regulate, we would see what we could do to improve release from those sources,” Skipper said. “This sort of reinforces that we’re on the right track.”
Urban areas more at risk
Whatcom County tends to have great air quality.
“We have consistently some of the best air quality in the nation,” Skipper said.
Urban areas tend to have higher estimated health risks, Skadowski said.
“They have more emission sources, including mobile and industrial sources,” Skadowski said. “We’ve done a good job to really ramp down the emissions from single industrial sources.”
Those are easier to regulate, as there are fewer of them and they stay still. Applying technology to smoke stacks to strip out pollutants is less tricky than tackling all of the cars, trucks and buses, Skadowski said.
“It’s a numbers problem,” she said. “There are so many (vehicles) compared to airplanes and trains and ships.”
Still, emissions from transportation have been declining in recent decades.
“Toxic vehicle exhaust has decreased by about half, or 1.5 million tons, since 1990,” according to a Northwest Clean Air Agency news release. “As people upgrade to newer vehicles, EPA expects these reductions to grow to 80 percent by the year 2030.”
The EPA is working on increasing regulations on vehicles, specifically through fuel efficiency, emission controls and fuel standards.
“We’re trying to get vehicles to be the most fuel-efficient they can be, and having controls on the vehicles to make sure they are capturing those emissions, especially for the toxics,” Skadowski said. “We also have regulations targeted at industry.”