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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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When People and Industry Live Side-by-Side: Health Impacts of PM Pollution

Posted on August 20, 2012

By Jessica Hendricks

In response to: Particulate Matter: Widespread and Deadly

Particulate matter (PM) pollution can have serious health impacts, especially when found in high levels in residential areas.  This occurs in both urban and rural areas, due to proximity to industrial facilities and highways, and can result in an increased risk of serious health effects including but not limited to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. 

Global Community Monitor (GCM) is an environmental justice organization that trains and supports communities in the use of environmental monitoring tools to understand the impacts of industrial pollution on their health and environment.  We have worked with several communities that are on the ‘fenceline’ of heavy industry and mobile sources that contribute to elevated levels of PM pollution.  The independent air testing program, known as the ‘Bucket Brigade,’ empowers pollution-affected residents to take scientifically credible samples using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved methods and laboratories.  The “Bucket” is similar to the Summa Canister, yet much more community friendly and lower in cost.  Community members can take samples when and where they want to with the “Bucket,” then send the sample bag containing the air sample to a lab in Southern California for analysis.  This gives communities living near refineries, chemical plants or other toxics-emitting sources a chance to even the playing field with indifferent regulators and polluting companies.

In West Oakland, CA, a predominantly low-income community of color, heavy industry and neighborhoods practically overlap.  The result is an area of mixed-use zoning where homes, child care centers and schools are next door to large toxic polluters. There is no breathing space or buffer zone to protect residents from industrial PM emissions.  Asthma rates in the area exceed county averages and statewide rates.

Within a residential area of West Oakland, GCM trained community residents to monitor air emissions from a scrap metal recycling facility which accepts scrap metal and melts down the aluminum to be repurposed. Considered a ‘green’ business, it is currently under-regulated by the local air district.  PM emissions from this facility have gone off-site and the PM pollution has been found within the community, including the local high school.  Results from the air monitoring done in the community indicate elevated levels lead and other toxic metals including mercury, manganese, nickel and arsenic.  The most likely health impacts of exposure to these pollutants are an increased risk of kidney disease, neurological damage, cancer and asthma.

Similarly, in Claymont, DE, GCM worked with a community living next to a steel plant that also recycles scrap metal.  Community monitoring in the area showed high levels of PM pollution, including particularly toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury.  According to University of Southern California professor Constantinos Sioutas who analyzed the data, “long-term exposure to fine particulate matter in residential location near the Claymont Steel industrial [site] would be considered unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.” Long-term exposure to high levels of lead and manganese can cause health problems including nervous system disorders, development disabilities, blood diseases and other ailments, according to the EPA.

The problem of PM pollution is not limited to urban areas with industrial facilities.  From March 2011 through March 2012, GCM partnered with the “TriCounty Watchdogs” of rural Lebec, CA to do citizen-based air monitoring near California freeway Interstate 5.  The group is based in a community where I-5 runs through a narrow mountain pass which at times traps PM pollution from nearby cities and the Central Valley in California.  This problem is further exacerbated by heavy truck traffic along the major California freeway.  State data indicate that nearly 70,000 vehicle pass by Lebec on the I-5 each day, and approximately 18,000 of those are large trucks with diesel-fueled engines.

Not surprisingly given the heavy diesel traffic, asthma rates are high at the middle school located only a few hundred feet from the freeway.  Children describe their “lungs hurting” after soccer games on bad air days. An analysis of the project’s air sampling data indicates that the Lebec community, including a school with 240 students, is impacted by diesel particulate pollution at levels that pose a risk of cardiovascular and respiratory effects, including increased incidence of hospitalizations and premature death.

The levels of air pollution monitored in Lebec are comparable to those of a major city, yet Lebec and nearby Frazier Park are places many families settle to escape the compromised air quality of the region’s major cities.  This in turn contributes to the air quality problem in Lebec, as many residents commute up to an hour each day for work.

These cases do not have easy solutions.  However, we do know that people need buffer zones -- a space between heavy industry or mobile sources of pollution and population centers like schools, homes and parks.  This buffer zone would greatly reduce the amount of PM pollution residents are exposed to and in turn reduce the risks of serious health effects.


Tshepo said ..

Too overcrowded

February 20, 2017
payal said ..

because of bad impact of the industries, people were die.thank you

December 31, 2016
Jesse Shoplock said ..

I am opposed. I believe this would be a negative move on our entire neighborhood and its surroundings.

September 18, 2014
shirley jones said ..

Can anyone tell me what is meant by 'high level of exposure', as in how high is high and how long is 'long term'? For example residents exposed to wood dust or crystalline silica? Would a long term low level exposure be as bad for health as a short term high level of exposure? Have you considered those residents affected by the increased demand for waste wood, hence more waste wood recycling companies with ever higher wood mountains? Here in the UK there is no protection for residents exposed to copious amounts of wood dust and even for those working in any of the wood trades masks and other PPE is not compulsory, despite wood dust per se being a group 1 carcinogen and wood naturally containing crystalline silica sufficient to cause the problem of premature blunting of industrial strength diamond and carbide tipped blades that merits research that always finds it's the c/silica in the wood that is the case, more so from a wood composite board, as silica is added also as constituents of the resins, glues, fillers, binders, etc. Wood composite boards such as MDF, particle board, chipboard, fibre cement board, and such like are manufactured using waste wood extracted from construction and demolition waste from the demolition of old buildings mostly. Hence besides all the toxic chemicals they're already made from, they will also contain or at very least be likely to contain many toxic and carcinogen chemicals and substances that were banned years ago from use in building products because they were proven to cancers and diseases to those working with them. These could be asbestos, lead from old paints/varnishes/surface coatings, crystalline silica, pesticides, fungicides, biocides, preservatives, solvents, heavy metals, PVC's, fire retardants, water proofers, etc., etc. The list is actually endless. All being put back into the system under the 'green and environmental' guise of 'recycling', where people can be exposed, especially if they're a wood worker, wood machinist especially or a resident living nearby a waste wood recycling company or company that manufactures the wood composite boards. Dust emissions are causing ill health to those in the wood trades (it doesn't just cause nasal/sinus cancer, it causes others too) it is making ill those living nearby the recyclers and those living by the manufacturer of the boards and not just in the UK, we know of cases all over the world. According to WHO and others there is no safe level of exposure to any carcinogen, so does that not make a mockery of any levels set such as ambient air levels and supposedly 'safe' work exposure levels? To add to this we then have ineffective regulatory authorities supposedly to protect public health and who then are heavily biased towards the industry that is polluting and so enforcements are rarely carried out. In case you were wondering, I'm asking as a victim but I'm also a researcher of this subject now since both my husband and I were both made incurably ill from a rare autoimmune vasculitis non contagious disease that they treat with chemotherapy and other immune suppressant type infusions. They say we are the only husband and wife in the world to have Wegener's Granulomatosis that did not meet via a support group. As you may know silica has been strongly linked to causing autoimmune diseases. I've been researching this for some years now. Wood dust, although a group 1 carcinogen, is only treated as a 'nuisance' dust by the regulatory authorities, but how can a carcinogen be referred to as a mere 'nuisance'. It never ceases to amaze me that so few actually know that wood dust per se is a group 1 carcinogen on the same level as asbestos. Just to add this same contaminated waste wood is also used as fuel for the Biomass Incinerators, so they'll be burning contaminated wood mostly and they won't know what they are burning. As you know heat/burning can change the composition of chemicals and even make them more dangerous, especially in combination with dioxins and furans for example. So how can they say the emissions from Biomass Incinerators, will not cause harm, when they're burning contaminated wood as fuel is just crazy. So we're trying to raise awareness and get changes made for everyone's benefit, not so much the Biomass side of things, because we're interested more in wood workers and residents exposed to wood dust, but it should have a knock on effect that will be good for other issues. They also don't take into consideration how dust particles behave, how far they can travel especially outdoors, how inversion layers can exacerbate the problem, they don't consider the topography of the area, it all affects the outcome. They also don't consider that often children and sick people, those most vulnerable who are affected differently by these exposures. Most levels are set without any medical rationale at all and are based on the 'healthy man'. We're not all strong and healthy men but even those that are, are at risk too. Disease and sadly even death caused by environmental/occupational exposures does not discriminate. I would be very interested to hear any comments that you may have or any help that you can give. Kindest regards, Shirley Jones

April 25, 2014

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