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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1996

On the trail of toxics

Two inventories can help you track how chemicals are moved and released in your community.

Jennifer Feyerherm

Chemicals are a part of every home and every community. Environmental regulations and public safety standards offer protection, but they can't guarantee that everyone will be safe from chemical exposures that might harm them.

We are not equally exposed to chemical hazards. Workers in some occupations, people who live in company towns surrounded by large manufacturing plants and those whose homes abut industrial areas bear different risks. Community tragedies like the deadly cloud of methyl isocyanate that killed thousands in India in 1984 underscore the dangers of adjoining industrial and residential areas and the importance of community emergency plans. Becoming knowledgeable about the chemicals that are used or transported in our communities is equally sensible in Beloit, Bloomer and Bayfield as in Bhopal.

Every day, thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals are produced, used and released to Wisconsin's environment. Many of the chemicals used in manufacturing, in commerce and in providing public services are tracked to stay aware of potentially harmful exposures. During 1993 just one such reporting program documented that 37 million pounds of various toxic chemicals were discharged to Wisconsin's environment and 108 million pounds were transported from manufacturing plants to other locations for treatment, burning, recycling, or disposal.

It's difficult to estimate how substantial these industrial emissions are compared with smaller amounts of chemicals emitted by many more people from daily activities like driving cars, fertilizing lawns, controlling pests, finishing furniture or cleaning the oven. Nevertheless, the industrial emissions are more closely tracked because they are more concentrated in one location, the chemicals are used regularly and people living near the sources are often not aware of nor would choose to be exposed to them.

The Department of Natural Resources tracks chemical flow from industries and municipal services through permits, reports and inspections. Information from these tracking systems is now available to you, free of charge, to learn more about chemical use in your neighborhood and community. You can work with the DNR's Office of Technical Services to extract information from the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) and the Integrated Toxics Reporting System (ITRS). Both systems detail which chemicals are released, where, by whom, and in what quantities.

You can learn about chemicals emitted to the air, waterways and sewage treatment plants. You can assess which chemicals are transported from the manufacturing plant to a treatment or recycling facility. Such information is important for businesses that want to cut costly emissions, community fire departments planning emergency response, medical professionals who want to diagnose and treat conditions to which workers are exposed, home owners and parents concerned about emissions from neighboring businesses, and students who are studying chemical exposure in their community.

The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is a part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 which gives communities an inventory of toxic or hazardous chemicals that are used, transported and released.

The TRI includes information about 336 chemicals deemed "toxic." Industries, federal facilities, state agencies and educational institutions that employ 10 or more people and use more than 10,000 pounds of one of these chemicals during the year or manufacturer more than 25,000 pounds of a listed chemical annually must report information listed in the TRI.

To date, the inventory only tracks emissions from these large chemical users and doesn't include information about small community businesses that also use chemicals to provide services and clean their establishments. Still, in 1993, more than 900 Wisconsin facilities released 144 of the 336 listed chemicals. The TRI "report card" will grow because last year the Environmental Protection Agency added 286 more chemicals to the list of substances that must be tracked through TRI reporting.

Bolstered by TRI data, concerned citizens and groups across the country and here in Wisconsin are working with industry to reduce toxic emissions.

Two databases are available

The TRI isn't the only tool to track how chemicals are used. The Department of Natural Resources keeps a host of records about businesses and municipal services that need permits to emit pollutants to air and water or dispose of wastes on land. Computers make it easier for the Department of Natural Resources to collect and share this information with you through the Integrated Toxics Reporting System (ITRS). This database has made it easier and quicker to learn about the combined pollutants emitted by businesses and municipalities.

Getting the big picture is only a first step in judging risks posed by chemical usage in a community. Both the TRI and ITRS list chemical releases and transfers in pounds, but quantity alone is not enough to determine risk. Some chemicals have greater health consequences than others. For example, a pound of ammonia vapors is not as toxic as a pound of lead. Furthermore, we know little about the cumulative health and safety risks of the dilute mix of chemicals we are typically exposed to in communities.

Two practical applications

Two community projects show how chemical inventories can be put to good use: a respiratory health study in Wood County and an environmental health project in a southside Milwaukee neighborhood.

Wood County Asthma Study

Over the years, Wood County citizens have expressed concern over air quality in their area. School nurses and citizen groups noticed what seemed to be a high incidence of asthma and upper respiratory problems. They wondered if the health conditions might be caused or exacerbated by industrial emissions. The Toxic Release Inventory shows that paper manufacturers in Wood County emit nine percent of the toxic emissions in Wisconsin. In 1993, pound for pound, more chemicals tracked through the TRI were emitted in Wood County than in Milwaukee County.

By the summer of 1993, improvements in tracking and modelling how air pollutants disperse combined with new techniques for studying asthma convinced the Wisconsin Division of Health to use the TRI and ITRS data to study three chemicals that may be associated with childhood asthma cases – sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and methanol. Exposure to sulfur dioxide causes asthma-like symptoms. Hydrogen sulfide is prevalent in the area and its pungent, rotten egg odor alarms people. Methanol (wood alcohol) was included because it is the chemical which TRI tracking indicates is released in the greatest quantity in the county, more than 2.2 million pounds in 1993.

Community members with guidance from the Wood County Health Department surveyed most seventh and eighth graders, and most parents of first and second graders in the county. In all, 4,441 surveys were completed and results were analyzed by the summer of 1994. By using computer mapping techniques, the Department of Natural Resources overlaid survey results with maps showing where these pollutants had dispersed.

Health officials concluded that children living in areas where sulfur dioxide levels are predicted to be higher were more likely to report asthma symptoms. No such comparisons held for the other two chemicals. Further studies could examine if cyclic emission patterns are linked to incidences of adult asthma or other upper respiratory infections.

Computer inventories like the Toxics Release Inventory and the Integrated Toxics Reporting System are important tools for studying if respiratory diseases and illnesses can be linked to airborne contaminants, says Jay Goldring, toxicologist with the State Division of Health.

Sixteenth Street Environmental Health Project

Are people living in older, industrial areas experiencing unique health risks from exposure to environmental hazards? In Milwaukee, one southside neighborhood wants to know.

John Bartkowski of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center explained how local health care providers are using data from the varied chemical inventories to help their clients. The community health center, located on the near south side of Milwaukee, has been serving a predominantly Hispanic, Southeast Asian and African American clientele for 25 years. Residences adjoin the older industrial corridors along the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. Twenty-three businesses in the neighborhood file TRI reports due to their chemical emissions. Other chemical hazards that are not tracked by the TRI also raise concerns in the area.

"Environmental causes for illness or disease are usually not in the forefront as physicians assess community health," Bartkowski said. People living and playing in this neighborhood are exposed to various chemicals and pollutants from local businesses, transportation and normal residential maintenance projects. They also eat fish caught in the local creeks. They live in older buildings that may still be painted with lead-based paints and some buildings have heating pipes insulated and made fire-resistant with asbestos wrappings.

Bartkowski emphasized the center aims to help jneighborhood families identify where the greatest hazards and risks are and help them minimize the risks of exposure, especially for children.

The center's Office of Environmental Health pulled together two advisory committees to accomplish this task: A Professional Advisory Committee of approximately 40 health organizations, governmental agencies, local businesses, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and environmental organizations; and a Community Advisory Committee with 23 members.

The study used data from the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify sources of toxic chemicals in and around the health center's service area. Local emitters, leaking underground storage tanks, spills and other sources were located. Center staff are creating a database to map the area and pinpoint identified health threats in the neighborhood.

This database will have many uses. For instance, a mother may bring a child to the center who is suffering a painful rash, says Peter McAvoy, co-director of the health project. After identifying where the family lives and where the child plays, doctors may identify possible environmental causes for the rash and offer ways to minimize exposure to the irritant.

McAvoy said the center is trying to determine whether respirator illnesses or high incidences of astha in the neighborhood is caused or worsened by air pollution. Eventually health project staff expect to identify discrete groups within the community that may share similar risks Community outreach programs can inform residents in their own languages and on their own terms what steps might be taken to minimize these exposures to environmental contaminants. Finally, maintaining long-term health data will be valuable for tracking the health consequences of further changes in the neighborhood, McAvoy says.

Both the Wood County Asthma Study and the Sixteenth Street Environmental Health Project illustrate important uses for the wealth of information stored in the Toxics Release Inventory and the Integrated Toxics Reporting System, says Susan Sylvester, administrator of DNR's environmental quality programs. Cooperation among civic leaders, local businesses, health care services and state agencies can help communities monitor both human and environmental health. The data could be valuable as communities debate where to locate schools, parks, hospitals and nursing homes. It might help a community decide what kinds of businesses it wants to attract to industrial parks.

Others are using the TRI and ITRS data to plan business opportunities. For instance a solvent recycler might choose to locate a reprocessing plant near businesses that produce chemical byproducts. Power utilities want to know who is burning which chemicals to recover energy. Environmental agencies want to track trends as chemicals are discharged to rivers or are transported through regions.

How can you find out what chemicals are produced or transported through your community?

Start by calling the DNR's toxics inventory program at (608) 264-6005 or writing DNR's Office of Technical Services, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707. Staff can help you save time in sorting through the data banks. Information from the Toxics Release Inventory is available in several ways. Computer diskettes and paper copies are both available. Data can be sorted by facility, by chemical substance, by industry type, by ZIP cod and a host of other options.

While the TRI information provides a first look at the kinds of industries and chemical use in your area, the ITRS adds information about smaller businesses and municipal services that also discharge chemicals to water, air and wastewater. Again, DNR staff are available to help you narrow your search to distill useful information from the volumes stored in the database.

A caution – raw data needs interpretation. Chemical usage doesn't predict chemical or health threats. You need to interpret the data with health care professionals and others who can help you compare these risks to other chemical exposures we routinely accept. The databases are starting points for further work in determining environmental concerns in your area.

Community right-to-know laws that created these tracking programs were passed to help you, as individuals and as members of a community, to learn about toxic chemicals that are being used and transported in your back yard. The Department of Natural Resources created the Toxics Release Inventory and the Integrated Toxics Reporting System to empower you to question and understand the flow of chemicals through your neighborhood. Armed with this data, you can bring businesses, citizens and governments together to make better decisions to ensure a safer, healthy environment.

Jennifer Feyerherm works in DNR's Office of Technical Services helping a variety of customers extract information about chemical emissions in Wisconsin.