Point of View

NC agency move would allow 9 times more arsenic in our air

July 10, 2013 

The agency charged with protecting North Carolinians from air pollution – the N.C. Division of Air Quality – has quietly proposed changes that will allow more arsenic in our air. Nine times more arsenic, to be exact. And industrial facilities would be able to triple their arsenic emissions without having to reveal their emission levels or show that they will not harm people’s health.

This might be good news for coal-fired power plants and paper mills, the two largest sources of arsenic emissions in the state (whose representatives last year lobbied for weakening of air toxics standards), but it’s bad news for everyone else. The Environmental Management Commission can still put the brakes on this proposal to reduce arsenic protections when it meets to consider the issue today.

Arsenic is a known carcinogen. In particular, consumption of arsenic is linked to bladder, liver, lung and skin cancer. Chronic consumption of arsenic can also cause nausea, abdominal pain, anemia, skin lesions, liver and kidney damage, painful “pins and needles” sensations in hands and feet, and a host of other health problems that range from unpleasant to deadly. Once emitted, arsenic in the air settles and makes its way into our food and water supplies. It persists in the environment (it never deteriorates) and accumulates in food sources – not to mention our own bodies.

The Division of Air Quality assures us that its proposed weakening of the arsenic standard is based on hard science. But look closely at the report that the division cites for its decision, and you’ll see that it completely fails to address the risk of exposure to arsenic through diet and drinking water. Instead, it focuses only on inhaling arsenic, which is a big problem, because the food we eat is the primary pathway for exposure to arsenic, followed by drinking water. The division might as well have said, “We studied the impact of pizza on weight gain and found no effect from smelling the pizza – so pizza must not impact weight gain.”

The division needs to go back and ask its Science Advisory Board to conduct a meaningful review. It needs to examine exposure to arsenic through food and water consumption. And it needs to do this before it proposes any changes to the arsenic protections.

Why are arsenic-emitting industries in such a hurry to relax the arsenic protections in North Carolina? Right now, every arsenic monitor in the state except one shows that arsenic levels in the air exceed the current health-based standard. That means the vast majority of people in the state – from children to grandmothers – are exposed to more arsenic than the current safety standard allows.

Instead of prioritizing the health and safety of people and addressing the arsenic problem head-on, the division caved to industry pressure to allow more arsenic in the air. By opting to make the problem disappear by adjusting the arsenic standard downward, it fails to hold polluting industries accountable for their toxic emissions. Adding insult to injury, the division simply ignores North Carolina’s alarmingly high background levels of arsenic when it issues permits and does not require a facility to curb its arsenic emissions unless that one facility alone would exceed the health standards – even if arsenic in the surrounding air already exceeds safe levels.

The Division of Air Quality has a duty to protect human health and to ensure that people from the mountains to the Outer Banks can continue to enjoy the rich experience of living in North Carolina. All that we are asking the division to do is to fully analyze the dangers of cumulative arsenic emissions – through the primary exposure pathways – before slashing the health standards for arsenic. Because the division has not done so, the Environmental Management Commission should reject the division’s poorly researched and flawed proposal.

Lawrence W. Raymond, M.D., a professor of family medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, is chairman of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. Robert Parr, M.D., D.O., is an emergency medicine physician in Wilmington and a board member for Medical Advocates for Healthy Air.

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