The wheels of government turn ever so slowly. The Environmental Protection Agency has just released the latest version of what it calls “a state-of-the-science tool” that estimates health risks from breathing air toxics in the United States.
The National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), based on 2002 air emissions data, helps federal, state, local and tribal governments identify areas and specific pollutants for further evaluation to understand risks they may pose.
The EPA estimates that all 285 million U.S. residents have an increased cancer risk of greater than ten in a million from exposure to air toxics. The average cancer risk, based on 2002 pollution levels, is 36 per million. Levels above a 100-in-a-million risk are “generally unacceptable.” And that includes two million Americans.
This means that, on average, approximately 1 in every 27,000 people would contract cancer as a result of breathing air toxics from outdoor sources, if they were exposed to 2002 emission levels over the course of their lifetime. What has happened since then is not covered in the study.
EPA says that air toxics are of concern because they are known to, or are suspected of, causing cancer and other serious health problems, including birth defects. The report assessed 80 air toxics, plus diesel particulate matter from stationary sources and from mobile sources such as cars, trucks, buses and construction equipment.
The latest study avoids dealing with a critical policy issue regarding diesel engines — whether diesel exhaust particulate matter causes cancer — at the very time car and policy makers are trying to figure out how to decrease CO2 emissions and increase fuel economy.