On most days, the skies above Orange County offer few clues about the chemical stew we breathe.
It does not come from smokestacks spewing dark columns of industrial excess. Increasingly, it comes from producers of high-tech computer chips, circuit boards, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, the so-called "clean" industries cherished by civic boosters, the kind of industry rich in jobs but without the mess and environmental threats of industries of old. Or so it seemed--until now.
Volumes of statistics compiled for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and obtained by The Times Orange County Edition paint a startling picture of industrial air pollution in Orange County.
7 Million Pounds
At least 169 companies in Orange County released more than 7 million pounds of chemical fumes into the atmosphere in 1987. And the heaviest concentration of troublesome--but legal--vapors were in Brea, Irvine and Anaheim, which together accounted for nearly 56% of the county's total emissions.
The amount of chemicals released countywide is the equivalent of 3 pounds a year of airborne pollutants for each of the county's 2.1 million residents, including suspected carcinogens ethylene oxide and chromium as well as styrene and Freon, chemicals implicated in the erosion of the Earth's protective ozone layer.
The immediate health threat of such releases is unknown. But experts warn that the numbers give cause for concern about the industrial revolution of the past three decades that has transformed Orange County from a string of bedroom communities into the second-largest county for potentially toxic air emissions in California. Even so, neighboring Los Angeles County generates more than six times the amount of potentially toxic chemical fumes, according to the EPA data.
"Most of this is colorless and, in many cases, odorless, so it's invisible, making it nearly impossible to quantify the problem," said UC Irvine professor F. Sherwood Rowland, a chemist who with researcher Mario Molina was the first to link chlorofluorocarbons to depletion of the ozone layer.
"For years, the standard way of getting rid of a large number of volatile chemicals was to release them into the atmosphere," he said. "It doesn't happen just in Orange County, but across America. And who knows what kind of price we have paid or are going to pay for these habits?"
Will Only Grow Worse
Although the EPA figures are largely estimates provided to the agency by the companies themselves, environmentalists, regulators and even industry officials say it is a problem that will only grow worse if it continues unchecked.
"The bottom line is, nobody really knows what the impacts of these chemicals are," said Bill Ryan, an environmental engineer with CalPIRG, a statewide environmental watchdog group. "There is the image of the so-called 'clean' industry (but) the toxic air emissions information that is emerging . . . is raising questions about the truthfulness of that image."
The variety and sheer volume of reported chemicals discharged, either intentionally or as so-called "fugitive" releases, also underscores the dearth of local, state and federal regulations. While tough, new standards would seem needed to monitor and curb such potentially toxic emissions, only in recent months have state and federal officials, including President Bush, begun acting in earnest on the issue. In part, that has been because the scope of the problem has been a guess at best.
But two weeks ago, Bush proposed an ambitious plan to curb smog, acid rain and toxic emissions that may ultimately cost industry and consumers up to $19 billion a year when fully implemented at the turn of the century.
In Orange County, Irvine is the first to seize the issue among local municipalities. The city is considering a wide-ranging ordinance that would restrict the use of certain solvents and compounds in what is believed to be the most far-reaching legislation yet in the United States against users of ozone-depleting chemicals.
It would require, for example, that anyone repairing an air conditioner--on either a car or building--capture and recycle the refrigerant, one of the largest sources of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC).
"High-tech doesn't necessarily mean low in toxic emissions," said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, co-author of the ordinance, who published a book in 1977 called "The Cancer Connection," which details the chemical threat to blue-collar employees in the workplace.
"In fact, some of these very sophisticated high-technology procedures bring with them pollution problems that are qualitatively, as well as quantitatively, far more serious than what we encountered in older industrial establishments."
Residents, business owners and corporate leaders will be able to voice their opinions on the ordinance at the first of two public hearings Thursday. One Irvine official predicted that the hearing "will be a gauge of private industry's willingness to confront and deal with toxic emissions."