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Special Report

Fortnightly Magazine - January 1 1999

some emissions are captured, as other laws require-by scrubbers atop smokestacks, for example-they still must be reported under TRI. Analysts expect that utility emissions will increase the national TRI total by approximately 50 percent.

3. Health Risks Left Open. Accurate information about potential health impacts of emissions is not included in the data compiled in the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory. Explaining these facts is left up to the emitter. Considering the stakes, that's a responsibility not to take lightly. The public will have no easy means of learning the difference between the release of a toxic substance and the risk of a dangerous exposure. And emitters shouldn't expect environmental groups to do it for them.

One of the biggest issues separating EPA and the industries required to report their toxic emissions is that the release of a chemical does not necessarily mean someone's health is at risk. TRI data is nothing but raw numbers. The inventory is not adjusted to account for what the EPA acknowledges are at least three factors to consider in using TRI data.fn3

For instance, TRI chemicals vary widely in what effects, if any, they produce. Some high-volume releases of virtually non-toxic chemicals might appear to be a more serious problem than lower-volume releases of highly toxic chemicals, when just the opposite may be true. Also, some chemicals degrade faster than others. They might pose less of a health risk than substances that don't break down so quickly. But that information won't be found in the TRI reports.

Whether it's air, water, on land or through underground injection, the medium of release can greatly influence how someone is exposed to a chemical, not to mention what impact it could have. Add to that whether a chemical release is inhaled, touches a person's skin or is ingested, and there are many different ramifications. These fine points won't be explained easily in sound bites that journalists will be looking for.

Explaining the Risk:

Wait for EPA Guidance?

As this issue of Fortnightly went to press, the U.S. EPA was putting the finishing touches on a draft of a TRI users' guide to explain how the data should be interpreted.fn4 DOA said the EPA would submit a draft of the guide to the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology for comment in January with hopes of releasing the official guide in March. (See a list of NACEPT members at EPA's website: www.epa.gov/opptintr/tri/tdrlst.txt.)

EPA also is working on a means of developing relative risk rankings for TRI data. However, the agency can't say when it expects to complete them. Such a model would include toxicity, exposure and population components, and is being designed to generate risk rankings by chemical, industry, state and/or facility. If the users' guide isn't expected to be available until TRI's thirteenth year (it began in 1987), then the industry probably shouldn't hold its breath for this far more complex risk-evaluation tool.

Pending guidance from the EPA, how can a utility put TRI into some kind of perspective? Here are some options:

•  Assign an expert