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Toxics data show overall fall, but some concerns

Data provided by the EPA shows that despite increases in levels of mercury, PCBs and dioxin, overall chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 6 percent.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Despite increases in levels of mercury, PCBs and dioxin, overall chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 6 percent in the latest report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The decline was led by reductions among mining companies and chemical makers.

Some 4.44 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, the EPA said. About 4.74 billion pounds were released in 2002, a revised figure for a year that had marked the first increase reported by EPA since 1997.

Metal mining and chemical makers reported the sharpest decreases, the EPA said. Metal mining’s 1.52 billion pounds, the largest single sector, dropped 18 percent from 2002. Manufacturers of chemicals reported 564 million pounds, a 3 percent decrease.

Chris VandenHeuvel, spokesman for the trade group American Chemistry Council, said trying to cut pollution is “simply part of doing business today for chemical makers,” who gain incentive to do so by posting emissions figures on an industry-run public web site.

About 23,000 facilities provided information on 650 chemicals, but that represented a decline in participation. In 2002, 24,379 facilities were included; in 2001, 25,388 facilities reported findings.

Meghan Purvis, an environmental health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, expressed alarm at increases in three chemicals that persist in the environment, working their way up the food chain.

“Although it is good news that overall releases are back on track, it is a major concern that some of the most hazardous chemicals have increased so dramatically,” she said.

Up by 1,000 percent were the 22 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls released. PCBs were once widely used to insulate electrical equipment but the government banned their production in 1979 because of studies linking them to cancer and other health problems.

Mercury releases rose 41 percent, to 7.4 million pounds, from metal mining and coal-fired electric utilities. The toxic metal can cause nerve damage, particularly in pregnant women, women of childbearing ages and young children.

Releases of dioxin, a chemical that can be hazardous even in small amounts, rose to 593 pounds, a 93 percent increase from 2002.

Lead releases were 432 million pounds, a 7 percent increase. This was the third consecutive year that the EPA required facilities to tell state and federal authorities about lead releases of more than 100 pounds. Only much larger releases were reported previously.

The EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory began under a 1986 community right-to-know law. The biggest polluters in recent years have been hard-rock mining companies and utilities.

Purvis said the EPA, which has been considering proposals to change the public information program, should resist anything that might reduce what gets reported.

“When facilities have to report their toxic releases to the public, they reduce them,” she said. “The Bush administration should not weaken the public’s right to know.”