Public Lab Research note

A Quick Look at the Health Impacts of Air Pollutants

by awoolverton1 | July 07, 2022 22:39 07 Jul 22:39 | #31262 | #31262

The communities of St. James Parish, like those in neighboring parishes throughout Southeast Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," face extremely high levels of pollutants, emitted from the region's 150 industrial plants. These majority Black and historically underrepresented communities bear the brunt of toxins emitted in the production of petrochemical shipped all across the nation.

The EPA captures information on toxic emissions through the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), and requires all industrial facilities to report quantities of chemical emissions into the air, water, or land disposals. The TRI program records annual information for 770 different chemicals that cause both acute and long-term human health effects, such as cancer, as well as those that cause adverse environmental effects. For St. James Parish, the information within the database demonstrates significant health and environmental consequences.

Chemical releases across St. James parish, found by summing TRI data of the 70792, 70723, and 70052 zip codes, totaled roughly 2,090,410 lbs in 2020, the most recent year on record. Of this pollution, at least 1,193,832 lbs, or roughly 57%, was emitted into the air. For context, all industrial plants in Louisiana emitted 120,159,548 lbs. of pollutants in 2020, so St James accounts for nearly 2% of the state's total emissions. These emissions include toxic metals such as cobalt, chromium, and nickel, as well as carcinogenic volatile compounds including ethylene oxide, benzene, and ethyl benzene.

Not all air pollution is the same, which is why it is important to look at the short and long-term health risks of individual pollutants. Inhalation of chromium and nickel, for instance, lead not only to short term respiratory effects, but are also recognized carcinogens, with long term exposure associated with risk of lung and nasal cancers. Cobalt, while not a carcinogen, can cause short term effects like congestion, asthma, pneumonia, and fibrosis. These health effects are more similar to those caused by the inhalation of PM2.5, particulate air matter that is smaller than 2.5 millimeters in diameter, such as dust and smog. Thus, it is important to note that metals, when emitted as PM2.5 particles lead to a multitude of overlapping short and long-term health effects.

Furthermore, the facilities in St. Jamess emit a category of pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which includes ethylene oxide, benzene, and ethyl benzene. When released into the air, these chemicals react to form other compounds, including those that form urban smog. While the EPA primarily regulates VOCs due to smog, these compounds also have significant short and long-term health impacts. Ethylene oxide and benzene are both classified as carcinogens, while ethyl benzene can cause throat irritation, chest constriction, and dizziness. A 2022 Tulane University study estimated that at least 85 cancer cases per year are due to severe air pollution, with elevated risk in the industrial corridor in which St James resides.

Emissions levels from several large plants in St. James are particularly alarming. Mosaic Phosphates released 513,638 lbs of air pollutants in 2020. Just across the river, the Convent Refinery released 191,348 lbs of air pollutants that year. The Mosaic Fertilizer plant released another 311,691 lbs of air pollutants, while 113,146 lbs of pollutants were released from the Americas Styrenix facility.

Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the state, through the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), to protect our air, water, and soil. Yet, in St. James parish, the closest permanent LDEQ particulate matter monitor is located 25 miles south, in Thibodaux, well outside the immediate vicinity of the industrial plants in the area. The closest active PAMS site, which can monitor VOCs, is located 44 miles away, in Kenner. The EPA relies on self-reported emissions data from the industrial plants themselves, and the LDEQ doesn't have monitors close enough to capture the pollutants to which the people of St James are exposed.When state agencies fail to gather the necessary information citizens can help keep their community safe and healthy by monitoring environmental quality themselves.

That's why the use of low-cost air quality sensors, that can be easily set up outside of individual homes, is becoming increasingly popular. These sensors measure levels of pollution where no other agency-run monitors exist, and at locations that are particularly relevant to understanding the impact of pollution on public health, such as right outside of homes and schools. While these simpler monitors cannot capture levels of distinct pollutants, they can read levels of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which accounts for a variety of substances, including organic chemicals, soil and dust particles, and metals.

Roughly 40 times smaller than the width of a human hair, tiny PM2.5 particles are the most harmful to human health of any sized particle. Long-term exposure can cause "premature death and harmful cardiovascular effects such as heart attacks and strokes," among other significant health problems. Entering the air in a variety of ways, including coal stacks and tailpipes of cars and trucks, PM2.5 are also emitted by the numerous petrochemical facilities across St. James.

The Public Lab #GameOverFormosaTeam has set up 3 Purple Air monitors around St. James Parish to measure PM2.5, in the towns of St. James, Vacherie, and Welcome, and hopes to set up two or three more. Over the past several months, Public Lab's monitors have captured around 1000 spikes of PM2.5 , some lasting for days at a time, at unhealthy concentrations. The longest period of elevated concentrations started on May 8th, 2022, and lasted for five days until finally subsiding on the 13th of that month. The most recent month of data, May to June, 2022, saw concentrations climb closer to the EPA's annual air quality standard.

Both agency-collected data, and information gathered by our community-science Purple Air monitors tell a clear story: emissions of metals, volatiles, and particulate matter are too high for the residents of St. James Parish.

That's why the Public Lab team continues to track spikes in emissions, and will continue to share localized, short-term data. To see the data in real time, visit the Purple Air map.


All levels of chemical emissions in St. James Parish can be found in the table below: St_James_TRI_Chemicals_Table.pdf



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