Sunday, October 4, 2009

ESCO Emissions and Children's Health

At a recent symposium on children's environmental health, Philip J. Landrigan, professor and chairman of preventative medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NYC, outlined the challenges of protecting our children from the onslaught of diseases caused by the proliferation of toxic chemicals in the environment. Landigran said that there are 3,000 high-volume chemicals used today; for roughly half, there is no basic toxicity information publicly available. (You can read an article about the event here.) "The environment is a powerful determinant of human health, and there's no group more vulnerable or susceptible to adverse influences in the environment than kids," Landrigan said. "Pound-for-pound children experience greater exposure to chemicals than adults." Landrigan also noted that chronic childhood diseases linked to toxic chemical exposure is surging, estimating the costs in the US to be almost $55 billion a year. Any of us who are parents, know that these finite monetary costs don't even come close to describing the toll on families that children's health problems can impose.

What I am discovering as I get deeper into this issue of toxic industrial air pollution in our neighborhoods, is that so much about this is just not known. The federal government has only done exhaustive research on the health risks of the 6 criteria pollutants, leaving another 187 different hazardous air pollutants on their list. Admittedly, there are hundreds, if not thousands more toxic substances, not yet even identified. For example, by the EPA's own admission, some studies have found that cancer risks from diesel particulate matter, which is not even included in the measures above because of uncertainty regarding the appropriate values to use as cancer benchmarks, could exceed those of most other hazardous air pollutants. If the California's benchmark for diesel particulate matter were adopted, 95 percent of children would be considered to live in counties (including Multnomah County) where hazardous air pollutant estimates combined to exceed the 1-in-10,000 cancer risk benchmark.

Recently, Paul Koberstein of Cascadia Times, looked more closely at the emissions data of ESCO, a steel refinery named as the major contributor of toxic air pollution around 5 NW schools that were ranked in the top 2% of schools nationwide with the worst air due to exposure to industrial air pollution. Carter Webb of ESCO continues to insist that the emissions coming from the 3 plants located on the outskirts of the NW neighborhood do no harm. But with such an obvious lack of scientific data that supports that claim, I think it is time for the company to admit that they base their claim on a standard of regulatory compliance not scientific understanding of the synergistic health effects of hazardous air toxics. And, I believe that the company should admit these regulatory benchmarks are increasingly being shown to not adequately protect public health. When it comes to small children, and the impact on critical windows of development, there are no safe levels of inhaled manganese, lead, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium.

The Swigert family has operated ESCO for close to a century, with Hank Swigert being the latest to hold the position of chairman of the ESCO board, and continues as a board member since leaving that post. Much has been learned in the ensuing years; more often than not, whether it is alcohol, tobacco, or the host of pharmaceuticals that pregnant women unknowingly subjected their children to, we have learned that what today has yet to be proven harmful, reasonable doubt might be the precedence for later knowledge of the serious health risks undertaken. We are just beginning to learn about the dangers of toxic chemical exposures and how what we put in our air can harm us. Don't the companies that are using our common air space as the depository for their chemical waste owe it to the public to prove they are doing no harm?


  1. Excellent post. The answer, of course, is yes. How do we apply constructive pressure on ESCO or Swigert to provide more information on their operation so that we can understand what we as a community are faced with in terms of their toxic emissions?

  2. Maybe the first step in "applying constructive pressure" is to ask Mr. Swigert directly. We have only to this point heard from "ESCO", not the people responsible for the company's decisions. It might be nice to hear what they have to say.

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