WASHINGTON, DC, August 22, 2014 (ENS) – The air over U.S. metropolitan areas has improved during the 24 years since Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, finds a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

On Thursday, the EPA released the “Second Integrated Urban Air Toxics Report to Congress,” the final of two reports required under the Clean Air Act to inform Congress of progress in reducing public health risks from urban air toxics.

San Francisco

A clear day in San Francisco, California, September 6, 2012 (Photo by @sage_solar)

The report shows a 66 percent reduction in benzene, a cancer-causing air toxic. Long-term benzene exposure causes effects on the bone marrow and can cause anemia and leukemia.

There has been a nearly 60 percent reduction in mercury from man-made sources like coal-fired power plants, the EPA report shows. Mercury, at high levels, can damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus.

The report finds an 84 percent decrease of lead in outdoor air, which slows brain development in children.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, “This report gives everyone fighting for clean air a lot to be proud of because for more than 40 years we have been protecting Americans – preventing illness and improving our quality of life by cutting air pollution – all while the economy has more than tripled.”

“But we know our work is not done yet,” McCarthy said. “At the core of EPA’s mission is the pursuit of environmental justice – striving for clean air, water and healthy land for every American; and we are committed to reducing remaining pollution, especially in low-income neighborhoods.”

The report also finds an estimated 1.5 million tons per year of air toxics like arsenic, benzene, lead and nickel from stationary sources and another 1.5 million tons per year (about 50 percent) of air toxics from mobile sources have been removed.

This is significant because air toxics, also called hazardous air pollutants, are known or suspected of causing cancer and can damage human immune, respiratory, neurological, reproductive and developmental systems.

In addition, about three million tons per year of criteria pollutants, like particulate matter and sulfur dioxide, have been reduced as co-benefits of air toxics reductions, the EPA reports.

Raleigh

A clear day in Raleigh, North Carolina (Photo by Anna)

Reducing toxics is a top priority for EPA, and even with this progress, McCarthy said agency personnel must continue to improve their understanding of toxics, to reduce remaining risks, particularly in overburdened communities. EPA’s Plan EJ 2014, addresses environmental justice in programs and policies across the agency.

EPA is working with state, local and tribal agencies to promote area-wide and regional strategies to address air toxics and support community-based programs that help people understand, prioritize and reduce exposures to toxic pollutants in their local environment.

For example, said McCarthy, “In Indianapolis, we are working with partners on the ground through an EPA grant for the Building Lead Safe Communities Project in the Martindale-Brightwood and Nearwest neighborhoods. We’re addressing the risk of toxic lead exposure in children through outreach efforts and compiling block level soil lead data, identifying hotspots utilizing air sampling and developing synergistic local solutions.”

The report summarizese EPA Actions:

Between 1990 and 2012 the agency has issued 97 technology-based standards covering 174 major source categories, including: gasoline distribution facilities, chemical plants, petroleum refineries and utilities, that have resulted in improvements in air quality across the nation.

EPA has issued rules for 68 area source categories, such as dry cleaners, electric arc furnaces and small PVC manufacturers – addressing 90 percent of the worst urban hazardous air pollutants.

Mobile source regulations, like the 2007 Mobile Source Air Toxics rule and the recently finalized Tier 3 vehicle and fuel standards, have achieved substantial air toxic reductions.

The Mobile Source Air Toxics rule is projected to reduce toxics emitted from highway vehicles and nonroad equipment by 330,000 tons in 2030, including 61,000 tons of benzene, and VOC emissions (precursors to ozone and PM2.5) by over one million tons.

In addition, national initiatives like the National Clean Diesel Campaign, Burn Wise, the Collision Repair Campaign and SmartWay have further reduced air toxics through voluntary partnerships with industry, EPA reports.

“We expect reductions in air toxics from cars and trucks to grow to 80 percent by the year 2030 as we get newer, cleaner vehicles on the road,” McCarthy said.

More air toxics regulations are in the works. The proposed updates to emission standards for petroleum refineries would reduce emissions from the 150 petroleum refineries across the United States, many of which are located near communities. It would also reduce emissions of chemicals such as benzene, toluene and xylene by 5,600 tons per year.

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