Wednesday, February 03, 2016

You never hear the carcinogen that gets you...

A friend of mine posted a link to an article in one of our newsweeklies about a teensy little problem in Southeast Portland:
"Within days, state officials are slated to release the alarming results of a monitoring program of airborne heavy metals, including arsenic, conducted this past October in inner Southeast Portland, the Mercury has learned. The state Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority plan to announce that DEQ data indicate a monthly average of 49 times the state air-safety benchmark level for the neurotoxin and carcinogen cadmium, and 159 times DEQ's air-safety goal for the carcinogen arsenic...most immediately at risk are two Portland schools — Cleveland High School and Winterhaven K-8 — and a 100-child, private day care facility on the nearby Fred Meyer corporate campus that serves children as young as six weeks old."
Unsurprisingly, this young woman was horrified; "Yowza. This should NOT be a loophole!" she observed.
The thing is, I've worked on more than a few DEQ projects and I put it to her that the real problem was that this wasn't a "loophole" in the sense that the facility in question - a specialty glassmaker - was slipping through a flaw in the rules.

Oregon DEQ's rules are contained in the Oregon Adminstrative Rules, or OARs, and the regulation involved here is OAR 340 and its various divisions. If you go read the rules defining regulated pollutants it's pretty chastening how much airborne contaminants are permissible.

And that's critical. The term used in the regs is "PSEL": Permissible Site Emission Limit". Note that the linked Merc article says this:
"...DEQ data indicate a monthly average of 49 times the state air-safety BENCHMARK LEVEL for the neurotoxin and carcinogen cadmium, and 159 times DEQ's AIR-SAFETY GOAL for the carcinogen arsenic..." (emphasis mine).
Notice what's NOT there?


There's no indication that the glass plant has exceeded its PSEL. Meaning that if it hasn't, there's no grounds for enforcement. DEQ can't bust 'em if their emissions are high...but within their PSEL. The PSELs aren't written to account for the surrounding of the emitter, in most cases, so here the proximity of schools and day-care centers doesn't factor in, either.
So the real problem is reducing the PSEL...and that's kind of a nightmare.

Just to give an example, the federal EPA sets what are known as "PEL" - permissible exposure limits" for hazardous materials. The Nation Institute of Occupational Safety and Health - NIOSH - sets something call a "Recommended Exposure Limit", or REL. Typically RELs are lower - sometimes MUCH lower - than PELs. Why?

Here's a great explanation from the blog Chemdaq:
"NIOSH RELs are supposed to be based on the best available science (using human or animal health effects data). "OSHA PELs, on the other hand, are subject to the rulemaking and political process, meaning that the interests of all parties involved are taken into consideration. Thus, OSHA does not have the luxury of relying strictly on science. Establishing PELs sometimes even come down to court rulings.

To be frank, the OSHA PEL is not the safe limit below which harm cannot occur. Rather it is the legal limit (i.e. what is “permissible”), below which serious harm should not occur to most people. Thus, while the OSHA PEL represents the legal exposure limit, it does not necessarily represent the desired exposure level. To that extent, the NIOSH REL is the more appropriate number."
So we're happily poisoning ourselves - just a little, just a bit, just a smidgen at a time, perhaps...oer perhaps not - because to reduce those poisons to a level where "serious harm should not happen to ALL people" would cause other people not to make money or to lose their jobs.
Or, as Donald Trump would say; "PEL? PSEL? Schmel! A little cadmium never hurt anybody! Regulations just cripple our job creators' ability to make YUUGE wealth creation for wealthy, job-creating winners who win!"

Is there an easy answer here?


But I can tell you what's the wrong goddamn answer. And that's the one that you hear all the time from "conservatives" and "job creators" and which I put into the Libidinous Visitor's big, fat, mouth.


Ael said...

Our modern society depends on a lot of stuff, the making of which can be harmful to people. Dealing with it invariably involves trade offs and compromise.

However, situations like this also invariably reveal where the center of power lies and who gets compromised.

FDChief said...

I think my problem, Ael, is that while I get that there have to be "tradeoffs and compromise" the default start-position always seems to be "well, how much damage can this stuff really do, right? I mean, we gotta make (fill in the blank), right?" As Buck Turgidson might have put it, well, hey, we gotta do what we gotta do and a couple of people might just have to get their hair mussed...

As you say, the "center of power" ALWAYS seems to be on the side of the guys pumping shit into the air and water. We NEVER seem to start from the standpoint of "Well, how LITTLE of this stuff is the most they can emit and still not completely shut down the process?"

I get a little sick and tired of hearing how haaaaard it is for the poor embattled industries. These sonsofbitches made the bed they're lying in by shitting all over it for a century. If they want to look to see who's whapping them on the back of the head for being bad corporate citizens they need look no further than their predecessors who created Love Canal and the flaming Cuyahoga River...

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