WASHINGTON — Residents who live near 205 pollution-spewing industrial plants in 37 states may face more than a 1-in-1,000 chance of getting cancer from the emissions--far above the risk level regarded as acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to preliminary government data released by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
Among the plants whose toxic emissions appear to be most hazardous is a Unocal facility in La Mirada. There, the lifetime cancer risk to the most-affected persons may be greater than one in 100, according to statistics garnered from an internal EPA data base.
Four other Southern California plants were also listed as posing a significant cancer risk. They were in Los Angeles, Irwindale, Santa Ana and Vernon.
Warns of Flawed Data
EPA Administrator William K. Reilly warned strongly that such estimates might be severely flawed, saying the data was not intended to assess public health risks at individual sites. The information was intended only to help officials compare and rank sources of toxic pollutants across the country.
Nevertheless, the overall picture presented by the data strongly suggests that--without violating any environmental law--industries across the country are able to release cancer-causing chemicals in concentrations sufficient to pose an extraordinary risk to public health, said Waxman.
The congressman said he released the data to dramatize the need for legislation that would severely tighten federal regulations on toxic emissions. While reiterating that the data was still preliminary, Waxman contended that it was appropriate to make it public.
"The seriousness of the risk before us cannot be dismissed," Waxman said. The statistics, he added, represent a "stunning demonstration of the urgency of the public health threat" from unregulated toxic emissions.
Ceilings on 7 Chemicals
EPA estimates show that some 2.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are emitted annually. While federal agencies recognize more than 100 chemicals released as potentially hazardous, current EPA regulations impose ceilings on emissions of only seven of them.
Among the carcinogenic pollutants currently unregulated when emitted by industries into the air are butadiene, produced by rubber manufacturers; chloroform, produced by the pulp and paper industry; and ethylene oxide, produced in sterilization processes.
In evaluating harmful chemicals, the EPA generally considers a cancer risk higher than 1 in 1 million as unacceptable. The estimate reflects the risk for the most exposed person living near a source based on a lifetime of inhaling the pollutant.
The disclosure by Waxman and others of the cancer risk data--which the EPA had gathered but not released publicly--comes as an anticipatory salvo to the impending battle to revamp toxic emissions regulations as part of an overhauled Clean Air Act.
While the Administration has emphatically agreed that current restrictions on airborne toxic substances are inadequate, the proposed Clean Air Act that President Bush plans to unveil Monday is not expected to impose standards as strict as advocated by Waxman and other environmentalists in Congress.
In particular, the Administration plan is expected to require at most that manufacturers adopt the maximum cleanup technology currently available at an affordable cost. By comparison, the anti-toxics legislation introduced by Waxman and others would require industry to incorporate new cleanup technologies as they were developed.
The principal sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) and Rep. Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.) also defended the release of the preliminary cancer-risk data. "We don't want to exaggerate that data and cause needless panic . . . ," Leland said, "but it is nonetheless most significant."
The figures indicated that 205 facilities posed cancer risks that may exceed 1 in 1,000 for the most exposed individuals. Forty-five of these facilities had maximum individual risks of greater than 1 in 100, and one--a Texaco plant in Port Neches, Tex.-- had at least a 1-in-10 risk.
The congressmen's decision to release the provocative data brought an angry outcry from industry representatives.
"To imply that these estimates depict the real risks of living near one of the plants is not just exaggeration but an outright misuse of data to deliberately alarm people," the Chemical Manufacturers Assn. said in a statement.
Texaco characterized the estimate for its Port Neches facility as "totally unsupported by any technical and scientific facts or by employee health records."
The company contended that the data included in the report was based on information dating from 1984, and that it had since reduced its toxic emissions by 40%.