Why do environmental regulators soft-pedal truly disturbing findings?

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rm iwest mugIt's not like we needed another study to tell us that air pollution levels in some places are high enough to make people sick and even kill them. But the way New Jersey environmental regulators handled the public release of  this new study is noteworthy because it's a classic case of government soft-pedaling some truly disturbing news.

Hat tip to the folks at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility for bird-d0gging the release of study on air toxics in Paterson. Initiated in 2004, they study's release is three years late. Perhaps it took that long for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to figure out ways to tell the public everything's OK when it's not.  

This move-it-along-nothing-t0-see-here-folks treatment of the study is pretty apparent upon even a casual inspection of the document. And look at the "key messages" in the agency's so-called communications strategy.  Why, one need look no further than the study's Citizens' Guide put out to accompany the report's release. It takes a disturbing finding -- an unexplained two-month spike in p-dichlorobenzene, the stuff you smell in moth balls -- and practically purrs:

Out of the 132 air pollutants that were investigated, only p-dichlorobenzene levels at one of the three monitoring locations in Paterson was found at levels higher that are typical for a New Jersey urban setting for a limited time period.

What's left unsaid, of course, is that air quality in New Jersey cities is typically bad. Fortunately, James M. O'Neill of The Record was not fooled, noting that p-dichlorobenzene "measured 205 times above the state's threshold for acceptable cancer risk." He went on:

P-dichlorobenzene is used in mothballs and as a garbage and bathroom deodorant, and is used in the production of dyes, pharmaceuticals and insecticides. Acute exposure can cause skin and respiratory irritation, headache, runny nose, nausea and diarrhea. Chronic exposure can cause anorexia, weight loss, and liver and kidney damage.


 It should not go without saying that America's air pollution levels are generally much better than the bad old days before the Clean Air Act. But there's still plenty to be alarmed about. And that includes in Paterson, N.J., as PEER's press release explained:

The study finds the 'combined cancer risk' from exposure to toxic chemicals at the high end of what the U.S. EPA considers acceptable risk, and over 700 times higher than New Jersey's cancer risk standard of one in a million.  However, the DEP-prepared 'Citizens Guide' for the study does not even mention combined cancer risks even though they are a central focus of the study and at the forefront of environmental justice concerns.

 That 700-times-higher bit is based on a cancer risk of one additional case of cancer for every 1 million people exposed to a substance every day for 70 years. When I came onto the environment beat in the late 1980s, that was pretty much what all environmental regulators shot for -- a 1-in-a-million cancer risk -- for pretty much everything they took on.

And it's still what New Jersey's regulations strive for. But the regulators who did the study were blase' about risks hundreds of times higher. (And it should be noted that the 1-in-a-million threshold is routinely exceeded now, at least from what I've seen of toxic-waste cleanups.)

This fidelity to the message that everything's going to be just fine is something of a knee-jerk reaction among plenty of environmental regulators I have encountered over these last twenty-some years. Why do they do this? I mean, they're in the game to protect people, right? And that means warning them, right? Ringing the bell, right?

The most charitable explanation I can come up with is that environmental regulators don't want to alarm the populace about something that they know they can't do anything about. If that's the explanation, friends -- and there are less charitable ones available, as I expect some our correspondents will remind me -- then we really have a problem.

Now, here's the kicker: It turns out that the DEP didn't study Paterson because it was thought to be some horrid cesspool of air pollution. Nope. The agency chose Paterson City because it was (for New Jersey, anyway) considered pretty typical.

-- Robert McClure