For everyone's health: The county must move to enact new air toxics guidelines
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On Wednesday, the Allegheny County Board of Health will vote on new guidelines to protect the public from toxic air pollution, replacing ones written in 1988 -- the year Microsoft released Windows 2.1. We urge the board to approve the new guidelines.
The Allegheny County Health Department is responsible for protecting area residents from the health effects of air pollution. One way the health department does that is by requiring industries to get permits to release air contaminants. These new guidelines are meant to guide how the health department regulates a specific type of contaminant -- air toxics -- which are known or suspected of causing cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects. The health department receives between 20 and 50 applications each year from industries proposing to increase toxic air pollution into the environment and our neighborhoods.
Exposure to toxic air pollution has real life consequences in our area. In June 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its National Air Toxics Assessment report, which showed that residents of Clairton and Glassport have a cancer risk that is 20 times the national average because of their exposure to toxic air. The cancer risk for Clairton residents is 762 in 1 million, and for Glassport it is 700 in 1 million -- the third- and fourth-highest risk rates in the nation.
We must reduce that risk, and these guidelines are an important step in achieving that goal.
The current outdated guidelines do not provide adequate guidance to ensure that the health department is protecting our health. Recognizing the need for a comprehensive update, a 22-member Air Toxics Guidelines Task Force met over two years to develop the new policy. The draft guidelines were made available for public comment, and hundreds took advantage of that opportunity by filing formal comments. This led to more discussion, changes and improvements to the draft policy; the final guidelines are now before the board for approval.
These final guidelines take a number of important steps to protect public health. The guidelines will be used when any new facility wants to locate in the area, or an existing facility proposes major changes that will result in an increase in toxic pollution in the air that we breathe. The new policy will guide the health department on how it uses computer modeling to measure the health risk posed by the new air pollution and how to review proposals to allow reductions nearby to accommodate the new pollution, so that overall toxics in the area will be lower. The guidelines also help the health department determine unacceptable cancer risk levels for citizens exposed to any increase in toxic air pollution. The new guidelines also recognize that we are being exposed to multiple toxic chemicals from multiple sources and that these cumulative exposures should be considered in protecting the public.
As with any collaborative effort, no one organization or viewpoint prevailed. The guidelines reflect compromises made by industry and environmental organizations. But in the end, we believe these new rules are a substantial improvement over the existing policy and will allow new facilities to apply for permits with full knowledge of what is required of them. This will remove uncertainties that keep businesses from moving forward, which will mean more investment and more jobs in the region.
Because the toxics guidelines are not regulations that dictate specific results, the real impact of the policy will be felt as the health department uses the guidelines to issue individual air permits. These guidelines provide a transparent strategy that will ensure the health department follows a specific process in making the important decisions that will protect the public from air toxics. But to ensure that the promise of these guidelines is fulfilled, our organizations will monitor those permit applications and weigh in as needed on the health department's decisions.
We firmly believe the new guidelines will mean improved public health and a more vibrant local economy for Allegheny County. The board of health should approve them without reservation.
First Published November 5, 2012 12:00 am