Air Pollution in Champaign-Urbana

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By Jacquelyn Potter

Why Should We be Concerned?

Our most immediate necessity for life is breathing.  It’s the process of taking in life-giving substances and releasing metabolic by-products; therefore, clean air is vital for survival.  It’s only when substances are introduced artificially that this process becomes degraded.  There are hundreds of air pollutants; some of the common types include: particulates from industry and agriculture that are linked to cardiopulmonary diseases, especially fine particles at 2.5 um (micrometers) or less; heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and chromium from power plants, industry and agriculture, known to cause brain damage, cancer, autism and birth defects; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like toluene and benzene, formaldehyde, chloroform and methanol produced by industry and known to cause cancer, neurological, developmental, immune, cardiopulmonary, gastrointestinal and reproductive problems; phosphorus used in electronic, plastic and agriculture industries is linked to skin ulcers, renal malfunction and arteriosclerosis; and nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide produced in petrol and metal refining, power plants, vehicle exhaust and agriculture are linked to cardiopulmonary diseases.

Several air pollution issues are often overlooked.  First, many pollutants are odorless (e.g. heavy metals, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides), and people are unaware when breathing them. Second, while acute, short-term effects can be deadly, long-term, low-level exposure can also cause disease (e.g. VOCs from paint or carpet and low-level release of pesticides and dioxins from plastics). Third, related conditions of bioaccumulation and biomagnification, the former being increased toxicity with increased pollutant concentration over time within an organism, and the latter being increased toxicity of a pollutant as it goes up the food chain. Examples of both include heavy metals, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins. The fourth type, synergistic effects, occurs when toxicity increases as pollutants are mixed (e.g. mercury combined with aluminum or lead; carbon monoxide with methyl chloride; or ozone with nitrogen dioxide). Finally, pollutants travel long distances by air.  For example, according to the National Research Council, a study found polluted air took eight days to travel from East Asia to Oregon.  Therefore it’s unrealistic to think that shorter distances (e.g. several miles) could insulate people from the health hazards of air pollution from nearby sources.

Potential Polluters in Champaign-Urbana

Because much air pollution results from human activities, that means we can do something to change it. However, before we can make changes, we first have to know what is going on that may be causing air pollution, especially in our own community. Champaign-Urbana hosts a large number of industrial operations for a relatively small-sized college town, and there are a multitude of potential pollution sources.  There are a coal-fired power plant, five asphalt companies, three steel plating and metal manufacturing operations, two plastic manufacturers and one polystyrene manufacturer, as well as industrial scale agribusiness operations surrounding the town that use pesticides and biosolids (aka waste-treatment sludge). Some of the pollutants known to be produced by the above types of operations include:  heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, copper, zinc, nickel and mercury, VOC’s such as toluene and benzene, as well as other toxins such as phosphorus, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.

Because water is used in industrial operations, waste water released into the municipal waste stream inevitably becomes a source of air pollution as it travels from source toward sanitation facilities. Industries known to use metals or toxic chemicals are required to pretreat waste before it enters the waste stream, the reason being that toxins entering the waste stream can outgas, causing air pollution along the way. The EPA grants permits to sanitation districts, which in turn grant waste-water discharge permits to industries, factories and businesses. The EPA is also supposed to enforce requirements to pretreat pollutants in order to protect local sewers, waste water treatment plants and the public. Otherwise all burden is put on waste water treatment plants, with likelihood that the waste stream en route to the plants includes any one or all of the above pollutants mentioned.  When mixed with other waste it would potentially result in toxic synergistic effects that the public would be subjected to via pipes running near their homes (potentially entering homes via heating/cooling ducts).

The laws intended to protect air quality are there (e.g. Clean Air Act, Illinois Environmental Protection Act, Section 9(a)), and enforced by the EPA via civil or criminal actions. However, there are weak points long unaddressed by environmental regulation pertaining to low-level, long-term exposure as well as synergistic effects.  Also, industry gets away with emitting pollutants due to exemptions and loopholes in environmental law, such as Startup, Shutdown and Malfunction (SSM) events, language loopholes such as using terminology that falls outside the regulatory framework (e.g. biosolids versus sewage sludge). Further, industry is often allowed to “report on itself” as to meeting emission and discharge requirements. The idea of industry as its own watchdog is unrealistic at best. Independent oversight is essential for transparency, which requires independent testing and reporting in a public forum.

What’s Being Done and What We Can Do

So where can one turn to find out what air pollutants occur in and around Champaign-Urbana? A search for organizations dealing with air quality in C-U turned up only a few. The IEPA is supposed to test for pollutants, inspect facilities, and enforce regulations; the Illinois Water Survey conducts air quality research through its Climate and Atmospheric Science section (IWSCAS); and the Sierra Club Prairie Group gets involved in air-pollution issues at the legislative level (e.g. the Coal Tar Sealant Bill). The only organization that has air quality and air sampling in Champaign-Urbana as its primary mission statement is Spotlight Air Environmental (SAE). Preliminary sampling carried out by SAE from 2016-2017 resulted in the detection of pollutants in Champaign-Urbana and the surrounding area. Heavy metals found include: arsenic, lead, copper, nickel, zinc and phosphorus. Also found were the VOCs acetone, benzene, chloroform, chloromethane, ethanol, dichlorofluoromethane, trichlorofluoromethane, heptane, methylene chloride, 2-Propanol, propene, m- & p-Xylene, o-Xylene, and toluene. Fourteen of these are listed on the EPA’s original List of Hazardous Air Pollutants. Although found in relatively small amounts, several of them are highly toxic especially when considering long-term exposure, bioaccumulation and possible synergistic effects.

Because several of the above pollutants are known to be produced by industries in Champaign-Urbana, such evidence points to a need for further air sampling/testing in and around the community. Questions need to be asked as to how pollutants are getting into homes, and there needs to be greater transparency as to whether all industry is being required to pretreat their waste. While there is no way to address all aspects of local air pollution issues in one article, organizations continue sampling, testing and reporting; therefore future articles may be forthcoming. To find out more, consult the EPA website, ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) reports on permits, inspection/compliance evaluations, violations and enforcement actions. If one detects air pollution in or around their home or neighborhood, it is important one contact the IEPA and fill out a complaint so there is a record of it. Questions can also be directed to SAE’s Facebook page where local air testing reports are posted. The issue of air pollution in Champaign-Urbana deserves more public interest and attention because maintaining air quality is extremely important to our health the health of the community and environment.

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