New EPA Report Assesses Achievements and Hurdles in Reducing Urban Air Toxics

Haze over Dallas (Source:  Texas Tribune)

Haze over Dallas (Source: Texas Tribune)

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the second of two reports required under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to inform Congress about actions and progress in reducing air toxics. Given Texas’ history as an industrial state and major emitter of millions of tons of toxics per year, the report highlights the importance of the CAA in curbing toxic pollution. Ultimately, this is about saving lives, as exposure to air toxics is associated with health effects such as cancer, respiratory disease, neurological and reproductive problems, and other health risks.



What does the report say?

  • It demonstrates that federal, state, and local regulations have been effective in reducing millions of tons of air toxics over the last two decades.
  • It highlights that much more needs to be done, particularly in areas where there may be increased health risks from emissions of air toxics.
  • It shows that benzene and formaldehyde, two extremely potent and ubiquitous air toxics, contribute to the largest portion of estimated cancer risk in urban areas.
    • The report mentions the 2005 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) data, which estimated that more than 13.8 million people in urban areas were exposed to cancer risks greater than 100-in-a-million due to air toxics from all outdoor sources. The next NATA will be released in 2015.

What nation-wide air pollution achievements have we seen?

  • A 66 percent reduction in benzene
  • A nearly 60 percent reduction in mercury from man-made sources like coal-fired power plants
  • An 84 percent decrease of lead in outdoor air
  • From 1990 through 2012, the removal of an estimated 1.5 million tons per year of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from stationary sources and approximately 3 million tons per year of criteria pollutants as a co-benefit of HAP reductions
  • The removal of an estimated 1.5 million tons per year of HAPs from mobile sources, which represents a 50 percent reduction in mobile source HAP emissions

What else needs to be done?

The report identifies six challenges to the current air toxics program where continued effort is needed:

  • Improved emissions data
  • Ambient air quality data in more areas for more pollutants
  • New air monitoring technologies that are accessible, transparent, and cost effective
  • More research into the cumulative impacts of exposure to air toxics on human health
  • Better integration of air toxics, pollution prevention, and voluntary programs in regulatory and private-sector efforts
  • Tools to direct national regulatory efforts at known pollution sources where emissions pose significant risks.

What does the report say about Texas?

  • The report outlines a case study completed in Houston that illustrates the monetary benefits of reducing benzene as a result of the CAA, from 1990 through 2020. Monetary benefits of the reduction are estimated to be between $8.7 to $12 million U.S. dollars.
  • The report highlights the successful Sustainable Skylines Initiative (SSI), piloted in Dallas, Texas. The SSI was initiated in 2007 and continued through 2010 to help areas reduce their emissions and promote sustainability, with the goal of cleaner and healthier air. This effort encouraged government, public, and private sectors to work together in a community to integrate transportation, energy, land use, and air quality.
  • The report mentions the value of fenceline monitoring in quantifying benzene concentrations at a refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. Importantly, EPA’s proposed rule on refineries will expand fenceline monitoring to refineries across the nation.

The Bottom Line

EPA initiatives and pollution standards have reduced emissions of decreased air toxics in Texas and across the country. However, more remains to be done, especially in order to provide relief to communities that continue to be exposed to increased health risks from air toxics.

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