When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways
and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is
to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the
environment and then make decisions about how to handle the
It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.
If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the
chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right
decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and
solvents, such as PCBs.
In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough,
because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both
in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting
for them to break down and disappear is not a practical
The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find
out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and
ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for
PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and
destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as
contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more
Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits
on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used.
That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of
inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into
the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can
wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and
humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources
are the most important to eliminate.
In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic
compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical
action plan. The chemical action
plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been
done for mercury, lead, toxic
flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of
Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially
toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing,
how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals
New chemicals are finding their way into household products,
cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to
raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a
long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing
The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to
fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The
other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give
Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives
are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for
a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the
Kitsap Sun on Sunday.
This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with
the need for Washington state to update its
water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water
Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which
water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances
and which should be labeled “impaired.”
The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for
industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally
stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge
from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it
won’t pollute the receiving waters.
Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and
sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters
substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the
Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All
these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast
majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound.
Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list —
so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory
We now know from various
studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound
comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other
toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take
a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The
effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be
debated, including the current session of the Legislature.
Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to
provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped
many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with
the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even
less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations
structured more than 30 years ago.
Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the
federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action
plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more
70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they
would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not
changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards.
Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed
increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a
million to one in 100,000.
In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution
standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than
1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed
level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk
from that one chemical.
Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk
of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important
step. In a two-part series I wrote for the
Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and
benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I
proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up
Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in
a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant.
But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind
that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about
433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a
million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the
American Cancer Society.
Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating
fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of
delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were
based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly
proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6
ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a
quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their
communities eat more than 175 grams.
On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and
local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about
what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk
remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment
systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary
So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it
does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the
level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See
agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to
be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is
too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded
by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance
or allowed additional time to come into compliance.
It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are
many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state
is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August,
when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into
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