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The Health Effects of Air Pollution Part II: What is in the air?
Vicki Wolf & Jane Dale Owen

If a local newspaper or TV newscast reported that all people in the city must stay indoors today because a terrorist had unloaded toxins and debris into the air that is hazardous to human health, the citizens of that community would be alarmed. The response would be, we need to take cover - we are being attacked.

The definition of a red ozone alert is “unhealthy for everyone”; a purple ozone alert is “very unhealthy for everyone.” The safest thing to do on red and purple ozone days is to stay indoors - take cover, it’s not safe to breathe the air. Since April, Houston has had eight red days and one purple day. People who have asthma and other respiratory problems should stay indoors on orange alert days - Houston has had 16 of those so far this summer. There is reason for alarm regarding the contents of the air we breathe, even on days when no ozone alert is sounded. What would the list of ingredients being belched into the air every day from refineries, plants and cars look like if it were listed like a nutrition label on a cereal box? We aren´t likely to receive even a respectable attempt at such a list about emissions from the refineries and plants in the Houston area - the responsible officials classify these ingredients as “trade secrets”. The Nova Chemicals´ fire on June 11 in Pasadena, Texas is an example of a serious release of toxins and particulate matter that was deemed not harmful by Nova officials and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The leading statement of their news release on June 13 said: “Air monitoring completed yesterday indicated no chemicals were released in a fire at Nova Chemicals in the Bayport Industrial District on Wednesday.”

Michael Sommer II, Ph.D., environmental and atmospheric chemistry specialist, happens to live near the petrochemical facility. He witnessed the accident and tells a different story. “The fire burned for several hours releasing a large plume of particles of incomplete combustion and possible volatile substances used in the plants production of ethylbenzene and styrene, Dr. Sommer said. “The direction of the wind was primarily from the southwest, blowing the plume across the Bayport channel onto the City of Shore Acres. I observed that evening that the plume of particulate matter was extensive and the updrafts pushed the plume in all directions. I was able to clearly detect the odor of hydrocarbons at my home.”

Dr. Sommer´s concern led him to investigate further. He talked with Nova personnel who said the plant manufactured ethylbenzene and styrene and that the substances had washed off site into ditches and could contaminate Galveston Bay.

Further investigation by Dr. Sommer found particulate fallout in Shore Acres and black debris covering sites as far north as Morgan´s Point. He noticed an overpowering odor of mixed organic volatile substances in the Port Road area.

Although appropriate testing was not conducted by first responders to the fire, data from a real-time FTIR air monitoring station at Friendship Park in Seabrook, Texas, south of the Nova site clearly showed the presence of high concentrations of ethylbenzene, even though the wind was blowing from the other direction. According to Dr. Sommer, this is typical of large vertical plumes as the volatile substances diffuse away from the primary fire. Other testing, reported at a public meeting at Shore Acres by the Texas Bucket Brigade, found a benzene level to be 34 ppb (the Texas short-term exposure ESL limit for benzene is 25 ppb, the long-term exposure limit is 1 ppb.) ESLs, or Effects Screening Levels, are used to evaluate the potential for health effects, unpleasant odors, vegetation and corrosion effects to occur as a result of exposure to concentrations of constituents in the air.

Dr. Sommer says he is even more concerned about the exposure to the fine particles of incomplete combustion that rained down on Shore Acres, north of the Nova facility. Particulate matter is considered harmless by the petrochemical industry, and the EPA doesn´t test for it. “Generally, the carbon is pretty inert,” Sommer says. “But, burnt carbon particles from power plants and refineries act as activated charcoal in the atmosphere - carrying other more toxic substances on their surface. One part per million (ppm) of benzene absorbed or carried in carbon,” he notes, “becomes 1,000 times more concentrated and highly toxic.”

Particulate matter (2.5 microns or smaller) can lodge permanently in the alveoli, the thin-walled sacs of the lungs that are surrounded by a network of small blood vessels, or capillaries. These capillaries in the deepest part of the lung, exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, returning the oxygen-rich blood to the heart to be pumped throughout the body.

The Nova fire provides a pretty serious list of ingredients that degrade the quality of our air and is under reported by the responsible parties. Here we have benzene and particulate matter reported by the citizens in the area. Although information about the hazardous materials released in this fire has been reported to authorities and at a public meeting, no mention of it has been made by the news media.

With the lack of interest and serious investigation by refinery officials responsible for the pollution, the EPA or the news media, it becomes clear that citizens´ involvement in discovering what is in the air is critical. Between March and August 2002, the Houston Galveston Citizens Air Monitoring Project (HGCAMP) took on that responsibility and responded to reports of physical annoyance such as air pollution, disagreeable odors or discomfort, took samples of the air and had them analyzed by the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. They found acrylonitrile, hexane, trichloroethene, propane, dichlorodifluoromethane, 2-mutanone, propane, chloromethane, p/m-xylene, tolulene, 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, ethyltoluene, c3-alkylbenzene, p/m xdylene, tetrachloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, methylbutane, 2-butanone and pentadiene isomer or isoprene. Like many of the ingredients listed on processed foods, you probably don´t know what most of these substances are. Each has a health effect ranging from mild irritations of eyes, nose and throat, to hearing and color vision loss, to heart attack. Many affect the nervous system. Toxins such as benzene and c3-alkylbenzene are linked to cancer. The full list with dates and amounts detected, and health effects for each substance can be obtained at the HGCAMP website: .

The most publicized item in our list of ingredients is ozone. When volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like the ones we just listed, and gases called nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitted from motor vehicles, power plants and other sources of combustion, unite in the presence of heat and sunlight, they react to form ozone. We usually think of ozone as a problem for city dwellers, but ozone and the pollutants that cause ozone can be carried to an area from pollution sources located hundreds of miles upwind.

As an example of the effects of ozone in rural areas, “The New York Times”(July 10, 2003) reported on a study showing that Eastern cottonwood trees in New York City are growing twice as fast as those in the rural areas of the state. Jillian W. Gregg, the research ecologist who led the study, found in the final analysis of possible pollutants it was the higher cumulative concentration of rural ozone that handicapped the rural trees. It turns out that in cities, the ozone is broken down by the very chemicals that create it, while in rural areas the ozone lasts and lasts. The researchers concluded that it was not so much the city trees that were thriving as that the country trees were suffering.

In summary, the list of ingredients for air pollution in the Houston area includes a long list of toxic chemicals, often amplified by absorption and adsorption in fine particulate matter that can become fixed in the deeper part of the lungs. On warm, sunny days add to that the production of ozone, known to be unhealthy to plants, animals and people.

It seems as though true monitoring of the emissions from plants and refineries is being left up to residents who are threatened by what is in the air they must breathe every day. What will it take to get state and national leaders to act to protect our environment and for management at Houston area refineries and plants to take responsibility for proper monitoring, reporting and reduction of emissions?

To avoid contributing to ozone pollution, the following steps may be taken to reduce emissions of smog-forming compounds:

  • Limit driving. Share rides, carpool. Combine errands.
  • Take public transportation.
  • Avoid excessive idling of your automobile.
  • Keep you car well-tuned.
  • Refuel your car carefully and in the evening when it is cooler.
  • Defer lawn and gardening chores that use gasoline-powered equipment.
  • Postpone using oil-based paints and solvents.
  • Defer use of household consumer products that release fumes or evaporate easily.
  • Conserve energy at home, at work, everywhere.
  • Contact your local, state and national representatives and let them know you want a responsible energy policy and proper monitoring and control of emissions from petrochemical refineries and power plants.
  • Pay attention to presidential candidates and other government representatives and vote for those who have a track record for protecting the environment.

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