New Jersey industries pump hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and developmental problems into our air each year, a new report by the New Jersey PIRG Law and Policy Center has found. Many of these toxic releases could be avoided if New Jersey industries started using existing, feasible substitutes for these toxins.
“New Jerseyans are being put at risk of cancer and developmental problems needlessly,” explained Abigail Field, Advocate with NJPIRG’s Law and Policy Center. “Industries are using very toxic chemicals—and pumping them into our air—when they could switch to safer manufacturing methods.”
The report, which used 2005 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (the most recent available), found that New Jersey industrial facilities released 398,939 pounds of airborne carcinogens and 432,119 pounds of airborne developmental toxins. Toluene, the chemical accounting for 72% of the airborne developmental toxin releases, and dichloromethane, which accounted for 26% of the airborne carcinogens, each have safer alternatives commercially available.
“Less than 15 plants statewide are causing most of the airborne toxics problem,” noted Field. “By not cleaning up their act these businesses are putting all of us needlessly at risk.”
The report found that 13 plants released more than half of the state’s airborne carcinogens and nearly two thirds of the developmental toxins. In addition, in the counties with the highest levels of releases, a majority of each county’s emissions could be accounted for by three or fewer facilities.
Not all chemicals are equally toxic, so it’s important to focus on what is being released as well as how much. Two of the toxic chemicals most frequently released to our air by New Jersey industry are lead and mercury. These well known poisons persist in the environment for a long time, and accumulate in our bodies. As a result, seemingly small amounts of releases of lead and mercury are dangerous. Indeed, putting just one gram of mercury into a 20 acre lake each year would contaminate the lake’s fish enough to put health advisories on eating the fish.
Statewide, 92 plants released 11,808 pounds of lead to our air, and 21 plants released 1,211 pounds (549,300 grams) of mercury.
“Even though our gas is now unleaded, New Jersey still has an airborne lead pollution problem,” explained Field. “And given its toxicity, the amount of mercury being pumped into our air is startling.”
More than half of the mercury emissions came from one steel mill. As the report notes, steel mills in Indiana analyzed how to reduce their mercury pollution and came up with some simple, cost effective approaches. Similarly, the report found that the electronics industry has found commercially viable ways to eliminate lead from many products, demonstrating that safer alternatives for lead exist as well.
“Since businesses can operate successfully and much more safely, the big question is: why aren’t they?” asked Field. “It’s inexcusable to pump so many poisons into our air when these safer alternatives exist.”