Cheap Seats 2018
Fear Not - 12/12
By Rich Trzupek
Money can be a fine motivational tool, but nothing beats fear. And what’s really strange is that in our pampered, wealthy society people look for things to be afraid of. It appears to be a primal need, hard-coded into our DNA. If we don’t need to be afraid of getting eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger than we’ll find something else to frighten us.
Environmental groups, politicians and journalists are experts at exploiting our need to be afraid. They feed off each other, whipping everyone into a state of frenzy and it’s we, the public, whose welfare they all claim to be so very concerned about that ultimately pay the price.
It is particularly easy to exploit the need to be afraid when people don’t understand an issue in any sort of depth. I don’t blame people who don’t understand each and every issue in depth. No one, not even I can be an expert on everything. I do blame those who exploit that basic reality.
One can whip up fear using chemistry very easily as the ethylene oxide nonsense in Willowbrook so aptly demonstrates. As a chemist, I’m appalled and I’m sickened. Appalled by the fact that so many public figures have joined in and exploited the panic, largely because of what a buffoon like Michael Hawthorne is allowed to put in print. (Allowed by his editors folks, the First Amendment guarantees Hawthorne’s right to be a buffoon in general). Sad, because I know that the fear among the populace in Willowbrook is genuinely felt. They deserve better than to be led by these clowns.
Fear is compounded when one is in the dark, both metaphorically and in reality. Most everyone reading this knows relatively little about the air we breathe. Few realize, for example, that the air we breathe has been getting progressively cleaner over the past 50 years. Few realize how awful air quality is in industrial areas of China, India and Mexico. And even fewer realize that if one is determined to find something scary in the air – anywhere – you’ll find it.
But let’s start with cancer risk and its relation to air pollution. EPA and many journalists apply a “one in a million” risk standard to cancer risk. Put another way, any cancer risk exceeding one in a million is unacceptable and action is required.
According the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), no census tract in the nation meets that standard. Your best chances, according to NATA, are in Prince of Wales-Hyder County in Alaska, where they calculated a risk to 6.1256 per million. On the other hand, you probably want to avoid St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana, where NATA tells us the risk is precisely 1,505.1167 per million. (Where they found 0.1167 of a person is anybody’s guess).
The average, overall national risk associated with air toxics, according to NATA, is about 32 per million. The national annual cancer rate, according to the National Cancer Institute, is about 5,600 new cancers per million people. Clearly, even if you accept NATA’s ultra-conservative assumptions, the vast majority of cancers have nothing to do with the air we breathe.
But let’s go back to that “one in a million” standard. Those values originate from EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System and frequently referenced by the Agency and befuddled reporters covering environmental issues and are known as “reference values”. Let’s put those reference values to the test with some other pollutants.
EPA does not monitor all hazardous air pollutants, but it monitors some. The following data is pulled from 2017 EPA monitoring reports for the Chicago area and comparing those values to the average reported concentrations to the reference values found at the IRIS web-site.
Acrolein: Monitored at seven sites. IRIS reference value: 0.02 micrograms per cubic meter. Average values from the monitors: 3,700 percent to 6,100 percent higher.
Carbon Tetrachloride: Monitored at seven sites. IRIS reference value: 0.17 micrograms per cubic meter. Average values from the monitors: 253 percent to 271 percent higher.
Chrome-VI: Monitored at two sites. IRIS reference value: 0.00005 micrograms per cubic meter. Average values from the monitors: 6,700 percent and 10,500 percent higher.
Formaldehyde: Monitored at two sites. IRIS reference value: 0.08 micrograms per cubic meter. Average values from the monitors: 3,375 percent and 7,150 percent higher.
I could do this all day, but I’ll stop there. The point being not that the air is so incredibly dirty, it’s that the standards being (mis)applied are so ridiculously tiny.