Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Your Right to Know: Learn about toxic chemicals released in your community

By Erin Jesky, Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction

Each year, facilities in Washington and across the country report on the toxic chemicals they release into our air, land, water, or send off site for disposal.

These reports are part of the national Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, which requires over 20,000 facilities across the country to report on releases of 675 different toxic chemicals.

Those 675 chemicals were chosen because they cause cancer, harmful health effects, or harm our environment. The TRI list includes familiar chemicals like mercury, lead and zinc. It also covers more obscure chemicals like pyridine, which is used to dissolve substances or to make pesticides, adhesives, food flavorings, dyes and other products.

TRI was created under federal Community Right-to-Know laws. It’s your right to know what chemicals you may be exposed to, so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology make the data available for you to search. This year marks the 30th anniversary of TRI.

EPA says that TRI data is intended to help communities:
  • Learn how many reporting facilities operate in their area and where they are located.
  • Identify which chemicals are being released by these facilities.
  • Track increases or reductions of toxic chemicals released from facilities.
  • Compare the toxic chemical releases and pollution prevention efforts of facilities in one location with similar facilities across the country.
  • Prioritize efforts to reduce pollution from facilities located in the area.

An important fact to understand about the TRI data is that it includes both intentional releases that occur as part of a manufacturing process, and unintentional releases from a spill or accident. Most TRI releases are allowed by law or by permit - facilities must report if they are in certain industries and use a TRI-listed chemical in large enough amounts.

The latest numbers were just released for the 2014 reporting year (the data lags a year behind because of EPA reporting deadlines and the need to verify and analyze the information).

Releases in Washington

So, what did 2014 look like in Washington? Some quick facts:
  • 324 Washington facilities reported releasing 112 different chemicals.
  • On-site releases totaled 17.8 million pounds – an increase of more than 1 million pounds.
  • Land releases increased by 28 percent, while air and water releases decreased.
  • Lead was the chemical released in the largest amount - nearly 4 million pounds. Methanol was a close second.
Although lead was the largest chemical category of TRI releases in 2014, most of those “releases” actually came from the progress being made in cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Site. The cleanup work at the former Manhattan Project site yields large amounts of waste. As old buildings are removed, the lead contained in their radiation shielding is disposed of in a landfill and then gets reported through TRI.

In 2014, Hanford cleanup activities accounted for 62 percent of Washington’s total land releases. In fact, the overall number of pounds released in Washington would have decreased if Hanford’s report stayed the same as it was in 2013. Hanford will likely report lead releases for as long as cleanup continues at the site.

Hanford cleanup accounted for 62% of Washington’s total land releases

Most 2014 methanol releases came from Washington's pulp, paper and paperboard mills. Methanol is a byproduct of “cooking” wood products in chemicals to extract cellulose. The methanol is usually captured and treated, but some escapes.

We’ve summarized the latest results for Washington TRI facilities on our website. You can view by:

Are these releases safe?

Just because a toxic chemical is released in your neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean you’re exposed to it. Unfortunately, knowing whether you’re at risk isn’t easy.

TRI is just one piece of the puzzle. The EPA advises that, “although TRI can't tell you whether or to what extent you've been exposed to these chemicals, it can be used as a starting point in evaluating potential risks to human health and the environment.”

You can use TRI information to:
  • Start conversations with your local elected officials, community groups, neighborhood associations, schools, environmental organizations and other community stakeholders.
  • Encourage local facilities to prevent pollution and find safer alternatives to toxics.
Over time, TRI data can tell us whether certain types of pollution are increasing or decreasing and what’s causing these trends. TRI only tracks reportable chemical releases. It doesn’t cover chemicals or facilities that aren’t covered by the TRI rules. For example, air pollution from auto exhaust or chemicals in consumer products aren’t tracked in TRI.

EPA also provides a geographically-based modeling tool that helps analyze toxics releases. Learn more about the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators Model

You can also:

What is Ecology doing about these releases?

Ecology offers Washington businesses technical assistance to reduce not just TRI chemicals, but all toxics used in their products or created in their processes. Our toxics reduction specialists can help companies find safer alternatives to toxic chemical ingredients, or help businesses increase efficiency in a way that reduces waste or emissions. See our success stories to learn about Washington companies that are taking strides in reducing toxics.

Along with helping businesses reduce their use of toxic chemicals, we also make sure they are following environmental laws designed to  protect people, wildlife, and our environment.

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