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Study: Most Americans face air cancer risk

Is the air you breathe really safe?   

April 23, 1999
Web posted at: 11:30 AM EDT

The air you breathe may seem safe. But is it really?

More than 220 million Americans breathe air that is 100 times more toxic than the goal set by Congress 10 years ago, according to figures calculated by the Environmental Defense Fund. And for 11 million people, the cancer risk from their neighborhood air is more than 1,000 times higher than Congress's goal, the group says.

EDF scientists based their findings on estimates of toxic chemicals in local communities' air from the Environmental Protection Agency Cumulative Exposure Project. The project used data from 1990 to estimate the concentrations of 148 separate chemicals in the air of every census tract in the continental U.S. (A census tract is a small area with 4,000 to 5,000 residents. The U.S. includes more than 60,000 census tracts.)

With the numbers from the EPA, EDF calculated the associated health risks for each community.

"The numbers show that cars, trucks and small businesses tend to be responsible for much more of the air's toxicity than is generally recognized," said EDF attorney David Roe.

The estimates are comparable to measurements taken as recently as 1997, the group says.

Of the air cancer risk calculated by EDF for the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent is from mobile sources and 26 percent from small business 'area; sources, with the remaining 14 percent from industrial 'point' sources.

The District of Columbia, for example shows a higher per-capita cancer risk in its air than any of the 50 states despite having virtually no major industrial facilities, says EDF. Car and truck traffic and the Ronald Reagan National Airport were its main sources of air toxics.

EDF has published the findings on the Scorecard web site. Visitors to the site can type in a zip code to retrieve local information on air pollutants including ozone, particulates and sulfur dioxide and the associated health risks.

EPA has cautioned that CEP results are based on modeling, rather than direct measurements, and that the modeling uses data from 10 years ago. However EDF asserts the CEP results are comparable to recent measured results

"The CEP estimates from EPA cast a lot of light onto what's been a very dark subject, but they aren't the ultimate word," said Dr. Bill Pease, Scorecard's creator and chief designer.

For more information, contact David Roe, EDF, (510)658-8008.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Environmental Defense Fund
EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards
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