Wednesday, May 19, 2010

AIR TOXICS BENCHMARK HEARING

One neighbor summed it up best, when she asked the final question during the pre-hearing Q&A period: "Since the Town Hall Meeting a year ago at Chapman Elementary School, has the agency done any tests to better understand the problem or taken steps to fix it?"

Gregg Lande, Oregon DEQ's Senior Air Quality Analyst and the person responsible for the state's air monitoring program and the air toxics benchmarks, responded: "No."

And there is the sum of the meeting on the Air Toxics Benchmark Hearing, with particular regards to the new manganese benchmark. Manganese is the toxic that many in the room last night had first learned about last year, when also learning that their neighborhood schools ranked among the worst in the nation due to the presence of manganese and other toxic industrial emissions. The 40+ neighbors, parents and otherwise concerned citizens that attended the benchmark hearing learned that this rulemaking will have no effect on the problem identified by the study published by USA Today in November 2008. 

No positive effect that is. 

The more insidious threat is that under a veil of "science," the rulemaking on manganese, lead, ethyl benzene and mercury can and will be used by the polluters that put these toxins in our environment as continued protection of the status quo, and fodder for the sources to claim "they do no harm."

Let me do a quick recap of the status quo: 65 Portland area schools (117 statewide) rank in the worst 10% of schools across the nation with the most dangerous air quality due to proximity to industrial sources of pollution. The federal government's most recent National-scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) report, released in July 2009, showed Oregon to have the 3rd largest population at risk of excess cancer due to toxic air pollution. Finally, according to the National Cancer Institute, Multnomah County, which ranked among the worst counties in the nation in that same NATA report, also leads the state, and the nation, in rates of breast, lung, pancreas and brain cancers.

What was confirmed at the hearing is the DEQ has no measurement, or specific program in place to measure and address the short-term exposures that our children risk living in the many identified toxic hot spots across the city. These benchmarks are annualized averages and meant to address a lifetime of exposure. Risk is assessed by modeling and very limited monitoring data from the one monitoring station situated in North Portland.  As Dr. Lambert, a toxicologist from OHSU, who sits on the ODEQ's Science Advisory Committee who makes these rulemaking recommendations, said the state does consider "these benchmarks to represent an acceptable level of risk."

Fortunately the public had some important advocates to put our concerns on record. Among them:

1. Dr. Matthew Brodsky, a neurologist at OHSU, who has done specific research on the effects of manganese. He testified to studies that show short term acute exposures to cause irreparable damages in the brain. In written testimony he notes: "It is astounding to me how this can be allowed to continue in such a densely populated neighborhood, and in such proximity to an elementary school full of children with rapidly developing little brains that are at the greatest risk of long-term neurologic damage."

2. Maye Thompson, RN, PhD, Environmental Health Program Director, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, who noted: "We are accruing evidence that air pollution affects the brain and neurological development. For instance, children from highly polluted Mexico City, compared with matched controls from a low-pollution city, showed a high incidence of cognitive deficits on psychometric testing, and brain abnormalities in the prefrontal region on MRI. These findings suggest that brain inflammation linked with air pollution begins at an early age and is associated with early cognitive impairment."

3.  Sharon Genasci, Northwest District Association Health & Environment Chair, offered a great chronicle of neighbors' efforts to monitor the air shed themselves and the history of recording high levels of manganese and lead in dust samples taken off porches near, and downwind of, one of the city's largest steel foundries. She also noted her committee addressing the issue of conflict of interest of members of the science advisory committee as far back as 2004.  Genasci suggested that the conflict of interest was severe enough to put a shadow over any of the benchmarks set during that period. 

4.  Finally, testimony was provided by Sattie Clark, parent, local manufacturing business owner, and founder of a sustainable business alliance. Clark described her personal experience of behavioral and other health issues with her son and the subsequent discovery that he had high, chronic, levels of arsenic. When she consulted the USA Today study on schools and industrial pollution, she found that the neighborhood school near her family's house was situated near an industrial source of arsenic, and arsenic was a pollutant of concern in the profile of the school's air quality problem.

Where are we now? Scientific research supports that there are no known safe levels of exposure to neurotoxins such as manganese yet DEQ's proposed air toxic benchmarks for emissions do not guarantee *reductions* in the current levels of manganese emissions around Portland and the state. We have until June 30 to let DEQ know their proposed benchmarks do not adequately protect public health. 

Email your comments to them now: Gregg Lande: benchmarkupdate@deq.state.or.us 

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