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We need cleaner air

A new study by eight scientists at five local universities says Houston’s air is more polluted than other major US cities’.

The study is the third to be released this year on toxic air pollution in Houston, a problem distinct from the city’s other air-quality woe – smog, a lung-irritating compound also found in concentrations here well above those of other cities.

Industrial facilities in Harris County emit more benzene and 1,3-butadiene, two potent carcinogens, than anywhere else in the United States. There is increasing evidence, beginning with a January 2005 Houston Chronicle investigation, that people residing by the region’s chemical plants and refineries are being exposed to concentrations of pollutants here that would be illegal in other states.

Where the research breaks new ground, however, is in showing how and why Houston’s air is more polluted than that of other cities: namely, the combination of a dense concentration of industrial plants and traffic that presents challenges for state and federal regulators.

As part of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, businesses such as refineries, petrochemical plants and dry cleaners were required to install advanced technology to reduce toxic air pollution.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the program successfully reduced hazardous pollutants nationwide by more than a million tons annually, including big reductions in the Houston area, the agency acknowledges it did not reduce risk enough in some heavily industrialized neighborhoods. The goal was to have no one exposed to pollutants at concentrations that could cause 1 additional person in 100,000 to get cancer. Numerous communities in Houston, the study points out, still exceed this threshold, more than 10 years later.

“We took industries one at a time and didn’t look at how they might be situated,” said John Millett, a spokesman at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. ”It will take federal, state and local efforts, along with industry and communities to make (more) progress.”

The study compared the highest measurements of three air pollutants – benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and formaldehyde – in Harris County in 2004 to the highest values recorded that same year in St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles. The air in Houston’s most polluted neighborhoods trumped the most contaminated spots in those cities by as much as 75 times.

The researchers also analyzed the level of these three pollutants, and diesel particulate matter, by census tract, and in communities without pollution monitors.

In many areas, concentrations of chemicals exceeded the limit at which one additional person in a population of 100,000 would be expected to get cancer from pollution, a level above state and federal health risk goals.

You can get more background from the Chron’s multipart series on Houston’s air quality, and from GHASP, which has linkage to the report and some supplemental material. This is a problem that will require political action to solve, so bear that in mind when you vote for Governor and for your state representative.

The majority of Houston-area lawmakers in the Texas House voted against legislation intended to protect the public from toxic air pollution, a Houston Chronicle analysis of 2005 voting records has found.

The five rejected amendments would have made the state’s health screening levels for pollution more strict, required companies to continuously monitor emissions and set fines for the periodic releases known as “upsets” that plague fence-line neighborhoods.

Yet 20 of 34 representatives in the eight-county region, where toxic pollution problems have been well-documented, particularly along the Houston Ship Channel, voted to table these actions.

All 20 of the dissenters are Republicans, some of them representing industrial districts such as Pasadena, Baytown and Seabrook, where people and industry exist side by side.

Just so you know.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for the plug. Houston has had some progress in controlling air toxics lately, mostly in response to strong action led by our mayor. But we still have a long way to go in controlling air toxics, ozone, and particulates. So your point for voters to become knowledgeable about which politicians, if elected, would hold companies (and TCEQ) to account is key.