Michael Ash: The EPA needs more regulation, not just “inform the public”
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Perhaps the biggest oil spill in history is of course capturing headlines across the world. But the daily toxins that into the air rarely make the front pages of the news. Now joining us from Amherst Massachusetts is Michael Ash. He is the codirector of the Corporate Toxics Information Project at the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst. He also teaches there. The Toxic 100 Air Polluters project names the corporations that are their biggest offenders emitting toxins into the air. Michael, thanks for joining us.
MICHAEL ASH: Thanks for having me, Paul.
JAY: So, Michael, why are you naming these companies, and why does all this matter to us?
ASH: Well, US-based corporations release about 4.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment every year. These chemicals are known to be poisonous for humans, and also have a deleterious effect on the surrounding environment. The United States depends very heavily on regulation by right to know. So what we find out is what is released. And that’s—really stands largely in contrast to outright regulation telling companies that it’s not okay to release these chemicals. So we try to act as a bridge between the right to know, which is what’s made available by regulation, and the right to actually having clean air and clean water, which is, I think, what most people are interested in having.
JAY: If I understand it correctly, the EPA releases numbers that give a quantitative analysis of what’s being emitted, but they don’t take it into account that some pollutants are a lot worse than others. So what you’ve been able to do is cross-index that.
ASH: That’s correct. Since 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency has made public a list called the Toxics Release Inventory, and it’s pretty hard to look at for a normal human being. It has long lists of chemicals, some of them with numbers in the names of the chemicals, and no real connection with whether the chemicals are dangerous or not. All 600 chemicals on the list are dangerous, but they vary enormously in how dangerous.
JAY: So who are some of the—so give us the top offenders. And what are they putting into the air?
ASH: The top couple of companies on the list are Bayer, the company that is most closely associated with Bayer Aspirin.
JAY: But this is pharmaceutical production?
ASH: The pharmaceutical producer. Second on the list is Exxon Mobil Corporation, of course, the well-known oil and chemical firm. I encourage all of your listeners to take a look at our complete list, which is available from our website, toxic100.org. So if you visit that site, you’ll see a list of the companies that produce this health risk, and then more specifics about what risk is being produced by what chemicals.
JAY: So give us some examples of some of the outstanding emitters. And what’s it doing to us?
ASH: It’s causing excess health risk, extra cases of cancer. There are reproductive toxics that are included, there are neurotoxics that are included in these releases. And these are everyday releases. This happens as a matter of the normal course of business. We’re not talking about giant accidental spills. It’s just—this is normal up-the-pipe, up-the-smokestack pollution that can have an effect on all of us. So some of the top chemicals that are affecting us include manganese and lead, which are heavy metals. And then there are also substantial numbers of organic compounds. And, again, all of these are recognized toxins. Some are more toxic than others.
JAY: So if we know these corporations are emitting toxins, we know these toxins are damaging people’s health, where is the regulatory authority?
ASH: Well, as I mentioned, the regulatory authority has largely invested in this concept of right to know, or public disclosure. The idea is that making this information available is enough to help us protect ourselves. But that presumes that there is enough understanding of the information and that there’s the power or ability to act on the information.
JAY: But how’s anybody supposed to protect themselves from Bayer Aspirin other than not take aspirins? Obviously it’s not taking the aspirin that’s putting the toxins into the air.
ASH: Our aim in the Corporate Toxics Information Project is to start mediating these data to enable people that are interested in socially responsible investment, investors who may not be willing to loan funds or provide equity to companies that have dangerous environmental impacts. So our aim is to make it possible for the different stakeholders, for consumers, to take action, for shareholders to take action.
JAY: But if Mobil is number two on your list, and I guess, I think, BP’s was 25, although that might change next time you look at who’s the top toxin emitter. But is the EPA not regulating this? In other words, you’re saying that they can let this stuff into the air, and then all the EPA has to do is let us know they’re doing it, which obviously most people can’t make any sense of?
ASH: That’s correct. Almost everything you see on the list is a legal release. And, in fact, it turns out to be very difficult to connect the quantities that are reported on this list with what’s permitted. Permitting is typically organized around the available control technologies, not around the amount that’s actually released. So almost all of these releases, all of which are toxic, all of which have the potential to cause very serious human health hazard, are legal releases. Much of the European Union has moved to a precaution-based regulatory model, where the introduction of chemicals into the environment is regulated under the presumption that the chemical is dangerous until proven otherwise. So we really have a long way to go to this from this regulation by right to know to actually cleaning up our air and water.
JAY: Now, in all the conversation about reducing health-care costs in the last year or so, I don’t think we’ve ever heard anything about a stronger regulation regime cutting out the crap that’s going into the air that’s making people sick. So we should be.
ASH: I agree. I certainly agree that we should be. As I mentioned, all of these are known toxics. There are something like 80,000 chemicals currently in use, there only 600 on this list, and only a small fraction of those 80,000 have ever been assessed for their toxic impact. So it is possible that these are posing a very substantial risk.
JAY: Well, to what extent do we know what the risk is? Like, are there studies being done to directly connect what’s in the air to our health, and do we know how serious this is?
ASH: Yes. Many of these chemicals are the object of well-documented toxicological studies that demonstrate that they are dangerous to inhale them. We have researchers actually working right now at the Political Economy Research Institute on the association between these chemicals and infant health outcomes. It’s a largely underexplored area, again because we operate from this presumption that it is okay to introduce chemicals into industrial processes, and thereby into the environment, without adequate regulation. It’s well established that these chemicals are toxics. There’s a very rigorous, often-contested process for listing chemicals as toxics with these dangerous effects for humans, but there’s no real agency that protects us from exposure.
JAY: Michael, I know from looking at some of the notes on your study that not all Americans are equally affected by the toxins in the air.
ASH: There’s a substantial disparity in exposure to these toxics. Many people use the term environmental justice to highlight the disproportionate access to clean air and water that’s stratified by race and ethnicity and also by class in this country. We’ve tried to shed some light on this with our Toxic 100 project. For each of the toxic releases and for each of the companies, it’s possible to see what share of their total toxic burden falls on people living in households below the poverty line and falls on people who are of non-white racial or ethnic groups.
JAY: Give us an example, Michael.
ASH: Near the top of our list for total impact is the Exxon Mobil Corporation. They’re second on the Toxic 100. If you take a look at how their toxic burden is distributed, almost two-thirds of their toxic burden falls on people who are nonwhite, and about a quarter of their toxic burden falls on people living below the poverty line. That compares to national shares—about 31 percent of the population is nonwhite. So Exxon is overexposing at almost a 2 to 1 rate people who are of nonwhite—.
JAY: Now, this comes because they build industrial facilities nearer to where poor people live because rich people have more leverage to keep them out of their neighborhoods?
ASH: So the processes by which we get environmental injustice are many. It can involve companies specifically siting new facilities to—because there’s more political resistance from better-off and better-connected communities. It can also happen because the pollution despoils the landscape and drives down property values. What we’re doing now is we’re simply documenting the unfair distribution of the toxic load. It’s very important to look at these. And we hope that by collecting environmental justice data up to the corporate level, we again make it possible for communities to demand a systematic examination of how the burden of industrial toxics are distributed unfairly.
JAY: So the right to know had better get translated into right-to-breathe pretty soon.
ASH: That is our aim at the Corporate Toxics Information Project.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.
ASH: Thank you, Paul. It was a pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget there’s a Donate button over here, or you can text the word news to 85944 on your mobile phone if you’re in the United States and send us five bucks.
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