U.S. Air Pollution Raises Cancer Risk

ENS Correspondents,
Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC, October 3, 2002 (ENS) - Americans face a one in 2,100 risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes from breathing pollutants in the outdoor air, a new report warns.

Outdoor air pollution is almost 500 times greater than the health protective standard established in the Clean Air Act, according to an analysis of EPA air toxics data released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). About 89 percent of this added cancer risk is from the soot released by diesel powered trucks, buses, and construction and farm equipment, the report shows.

"Dangers of Diesel: How Diesel Soot and Other Air Toxics Increase Americans' Risk of Cancer" comes as the Bush administration decides whether to issue new standards for diesel construction and farm equipment and their fuel.

"This is an unacceptable cancer threat to Americans, but it's one that we can virtually eliminate," said U.S. PIRG clean air advocate Emily Figdor. "Step one is for the Bush administration to continue to implement the tough clean air standards on the books for diesel trucks and buses and their fuel. Step two is for the administration to adopt strong new standards for the diesel engines and fuel that power construction and farm equipment."

U.S. PIRG analyzed EPA data from 1996, the most recent and comprehensive data available, to estimate the potential cancer risks associated with exposure to 33 air toxics - pollutants that can cause cancer, birth defects and other problems - that pose the greatest public health risk in urban areas.

The Clean Air Act set a goal of reducing the cancer risk from air toxics to less than one in one million. The report estimates national, state, and county risks and compares them to this cancer benchmark.

The report does not consider non-cancer health effects associated with the pollutants. Diesel soot has been linked to lung cancer and triggers asthma and other respiratory problems. The fine particles in diesel soot also can make existing heart and lung disease worse, and lead to premature death.

In 1996, Americans in every state and county in the continental U.S. were exposed to diesel soot at levels that far exceeded the one in one million standard. On average, Americans breathed levels of diesel soot more than 425 times the cancer benchmark concentration. Risks were highest in New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Maryland.

The report shows that cars, trucks and non-road engines released more than half a million tons of diesel soot into the outdoor air in 1996. About 65 percent of these emissions were from construction equipment and other non-road diesel engines.

The report released Thursday is one of a number of recent reports, including studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( news - web sites) (EPA), the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, that reach the same conclusion: diesel exhaust is dangerous to human health.

The EPA has committed to implementing new standards, adopted in 2001, for diesel trucks and buses. These standards will slash diesel emissions from trucks and buses by more than 90 percent, the equivalent of taking 13 million of the nation's trucks and buses off the roads.

The EPA is also developing new standards for diesel construction and farm equipment and their fuel, with a formal proposal due out next year. As part of this non-road diesel proposal, the administration is considering developing an emission trading program between the truck and non-road sectors.

"We remain concerned that a market based trading program could undermine the crucial emissions reductions required for diesel trucks and buses and compromise the clean up of non-road diesel engines," said U.S. PIRG's Figdor. "We plan to scrutinize any trading proposal very carefully."