Study Focuses on Toxins in Houston's Air

A new study of toxins in Houston's air is prompting a coalition of researchers to push from new air quality standards. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, the 15 month study shows Houston has as much as 20 times the level of some toxins when compared to Los Angeles and other large industrial cities.

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The air quality report funded by the Houston Endowment examined levels of four toxins -- benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde and diesel particulate matter. Rice University Associate Professor Dr. Matt Fraser headed up the research coalition. He says the level of air toxins in some parts of Houston poses a dangerous risk of cancer and other health problems.

"The lifetime exposure to the air toxics is very high. I think that the surprising thing had to come, from my perspective the surprising thing was the toxicological data, there is a lot of information that has been compiled in our report and in other studies about how clear the link of exporsure is to the health impacts that we're concerned about."

In areas with the worst pollution, Fraser says the toxin levels could be expected to cause cancer in as many as hundreds per million people in the risk areas. The report identifies Milby Park, the Lynchberg Ferry area, Deer Park and Clinton Drive near the Houston Ship Channel as the areas with highest concentrations of carcinogenic pollutants.

"Our ultimate goal is to have air toxics concentrations down to a level where exposure to air toxics will lead to only one excess cancer per million people exposed."

Researchers compared the air toxicology to levels in Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Butadiene levels were 20 times higher than those recorded in L.A. And both Houston's annual averages as well as 24-hour averages were consistently higher than the other cities. The report identifies the pollutants as coming from industry and point sources as well as mobile sources. University of Houston Law Professor Victor Flatt says they recommend lawmakers take immediate action to adopt new air quality standards.

"We recommend that they require sources themselves to identify what they're putting into the atmosphere and to quantify that and to report that and to have enforceable standards for these sources. There aren't that many monitors and we're not even sure of all of the -- everything that's out there and we need more information from them."

Most of the state's air quality focus is on ozone. Flatt says he and the other researchers are recommeding a wholistic approach to air pollution, with special consideration of those toxins which have the greatest impact on human health. The study was compiled by researchers from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, Baylor College of Medicine and UTMB-Galveston. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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