EPA Proposes New Air Pollution Standards for Chemical and Polymer Plants

The EPA's new air pollution standards aim to lower cancer rates around communities hit hardest by chemical and polymer plant toxic emissions.

Federal environmental regulators seek to reduce emissions of toxic chemicals by more than 6,000 tons per year, a move they say could reduce the number of cancers in surrounding communities by 96%.

On April 6, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new chemical and polymer manufacturing plant standards (PDF) which aim to reduce the release of toxic air pollutants.

The new proposal stems from the Biden Administration’s commitment to ensuring environmental protections for the public and ending cancer, as part of the Cancer Moonshot plan. The EPA indicates its goal is to cut toxic pollution emissions, specifically ethylene oxide and chloroprene, by 6,000 tons per year.

Air Pollution from Chemical Manufacturing Plants

Manufacturing plants affected by the ruling make synthetic organic chemicals, including polymers that are used to produce items like neoprene, a rubber found in wetsuits, adhesives and other products.

However, research indicates chemical manufacturing increases the level of pollutants in the air, including metals, sulfurs, and other particulate matter which is especially harmful to human health.

The plants also release benzene, 1,3-butadiene, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride.

Reductions in Key Air Pollutants Sought

The proposal calls for the reduction of emissions from nearly 80 chemicals, because of the widespread health effects they can cause. The EPA estimates the reductions in toxic chemicals would reduce ethylene oxide emissions by 58 tons per year, and chloroprene emissions by 14 tons per year. It would also reduce smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by more than 23,000 tons per year.

This level of air pollution reduction could reduce the number of people diagnosed with cancer and lower the number of people facing an elevated cancer risk by 96%, especially among communities surrounding chemical plants.

“For generations, our most vulnerable communities have unjustly borne the burden of breathing unsafe, polluted air,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Every child in this country deserves clean air to breathe, and EPA will use every available tool to make that vision a reality.”

The chemical plants would be required to monitor air pollution levels entering the air at the fence line of the facility. If levels increased beyond threshold limits, the plant would be required to find the source and make repairs to maintain reduced air pollution levels. Threshold requirements would vary based on the chemical.

The EPA made the announcement in an area of Louisiana referred to as cancer alley. The region is home to more than 150 chemical plants built in an 85-mile area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The area is plagued by a high number of cancer diagnoses.

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In 2010, a community in that area, St. John the Baptist Parish, had the highest cancer rate in the country. Today the cancer risk in that area is seven times higher than the national average.

Air pollution is not only linked to conditions like asthma and bronchitis but also myriad health concerns ranging from cardiovascular disease to a number of cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, breast cancer, and liver cancer. The EPA classified chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen in 2010 but didn’t issue warnings to Louisiana about the dangers until 2016.

The EPA will accept written comments on the rule once it’s been published in the public register. It will hold a public hearing to allow public comment. After reviewing comments, the agency plans to finalize the rule by Spring 2024.

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