Formaldehyde is top air pollutant in South Tucson, according to EPA’s outdated data

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Lauren Trench | The Daily Wildcat Environmentalist's gather to protest climate change in El Presidio Park in downtown Tucson, Az on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

Air is the silent killer that goes unregulated in Tucson.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, South Tucson’s highest chemical air pollutant is formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen listed on the EPA’s list of hazardous air pollutants. Data listed on the EPA website originates from 2014 and say the cancer risk from air pollution is 38 in a million residents, a similar probability to the chances of dying from a cataclysmic storm, according to the National Safety Council.

Lei Zhu, associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology, studies formaldehyde.

“Human activities like oil and gas operations contribute significantly to HCHO levels in urban or industry areas,”  Zhu said.

HCHO is the chemical formula for formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is commonly found in wood products, paints and cigarettes, according to the National Cancer Institute. 

According to Dylan Millet, co-author on one of Zhu’s studies and a professor at the University of Minnesota, trees are the largest contributor of formaldehyde in the United States. 

Millet said trees emit a chemical that reacts with the atmosphere to produce formaldehyde. However, South Tucson has a high percentage of factories. 

South Tucson is located near major industrial polluters such as the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson International Airport, Raytheon Missile Systems Tucson and small-scale manufacturing facilities.

South Tucson has been susceptible to environmental pollution injustices in the past due to unregulated dumping. 

Health concerns in South Tucson have historically been centered around water. In the 1990s, Southside residents found themselves in litigation battles over trichlorethylene (TCE) contamination by the Hughes Aircraft company, now known as Raytheon Missiles. 

Tucson residents won. However, residents were filing claims again in 2018. The Arizona Daily Star’s Tony Davis wrote that 1,350 South Side residents had filed claims with the Air Force for environmental contamination.

Eric Betterton, the head of the University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, said there are small businesses in South Tucson for wood processing, automobile repair and nail salons that use a range of solvents.

Betterton says these businesses have little regulation.

Dago Enriquez, an employee of McElroy’s Automotive Repair shop on Sixth Avenue and 31st Street, said they obey protocols for disposal, but Pima county doesn’t often come to their store to enforce strict regulations on chemical usage.

The Pima County Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t monitor formaldehyde air pollution.

Beth Gorman, the PDEQ public outreach and education manager, said Pima County is not required by the EPA to monitor formaldehyde.

“There is no standard set for monitoring formaldehyde,” Gorman said.

Zhu said formaldehyde should be measured on a frequent basis.

“More observations would facilitate more accurate assessments of its health impacts and better understanding of its precursors,” Zhu said.

Car emissions release volatile organic compounds, a precursor to formaldehyde reactions in the atmosphere, according to Zhu.

South Tucson is located near two major highways, Interstate 19 and Interstate 10. Daily commuters contribute to the overall chemical emissions in our atmosphere.

Colleen McKaughan, retired Associate Director of Air Division Region 9 for the EPA, said environmental professionals are more worried about methylene chloride and perfluorooctanoic acids.

Methylene chloride is a dangerous chemical used in paint stripping that has been shown to cause cancer, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Perfluorooctanoic acids are found in consumer goods like nonstick cookware and can cause harmful effects to a developing fetus, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

However, McKaughan said that she would not trust the data that comes out of “President Trump’s EPA”.

“The current administration is anti-science, so the decisions they are making appear to be pro-business and not based on reliable or accurate science,” McKaughan said.

McKaughan was not shocked by the EPA’s lack of standard on formaldehyde.

The administration’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget decreases the EPA’s budget to $6.1 billion, a 31% decrease from 2019’s budget of $8.85 billion.

In 2018, it was discovered the administration had been dismissing the release of an important assessment that would inform the public of formaldehyde toxicity from a letter sent by senators to the previous EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.

On May 17, a letter from Sen. Edward J. Markey, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Thomas R. Carper was sent to Pruitt regarding a delayed assessment on formaldehyde.

The letter discusses the Integrated Risk Information System program. The IRIS program assesses chemicals that the public may be exposed to and provides a scientific report for the EPA’s regulatory decisions.

The letter said IRIS finished an assessment of formaldehyde in 2017, showing evidence that formaldehyde caused nasopharyngeal (head and neck) cancer and leukemia.

According to the letter, the senators expressed concern for the assessment’s delay.

“We have also learned that, at the same time as EPA political appointees’ requests were delaying the formaldehyde assessments movement through the agency review process, the American Chemistry Council as well as interested corporations such as ExxonMobil have been pressuring EPA not to release the assessment for public comment as drafted,” the letter reads.

Formaldehyde is used in major industries such as methanol, pesticides and even cosmetics, according to the American Cancer Society.

The release of IRIS’s assessment would provide a foundation to supporting more studies on formaldehyde pollution, thereby creating standards for Tucson.

Concern of air pollution in Tucson is not just education on chemical health risks, but also the effects of long-term exposure to a combination of chemicals known to cause cancer.

Eva-Lou Edwards, a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering at the UA, studies the interaction between small particles in air and water vapors that form clouds.

“When you have chemicals and metals that are continuously depositing in your lungs that are not supposed to be there, that’s when reactions happen that you usually wouldn’t have,” Edwards said.

Edwards said longer exposure to chemical particulates from the air begin to produce free radicals, like the effects of second-hand smoke from cigarettes.

Chemicals that go unregulated and misunderstood are a major public health concern, especially for a community who is historically at risk from industrial emissions and consistent exposure.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva is working to pass legislation that would implement higher regulations for water and air in Tucson.

“We had an environmental summit in June which 300 people representing 150 organizations all across the country attended, and they are helping us write the legislation,” Grijalva said.

Grijalva echoed concerns about the presidential administration’s lack of environmental protection. He said the administration has lowered emissions standards on pesticides, water discharge and industrial waste.

“New regulation by the Trump administration have had the effect of increasing vulnerability, exposure and public health risk for communities all across this country and particularly for environmental justice communities,” Grijalva said.

Based on the EPA environmental justice website demographics, South Tucson residents are predominantly low-income, categorizing them as environmental justice communities.

Grijalva said he is working on new legislation that would affect Arizona and tribal lands. He said this legislation would reinstate regulation and monitoring.

“It will also look at environmental justice communities, like South Tucson, who are disproportionally impacted so that they have a means to be monitored and receive robust enforcement standards,” Grijalva said.

Grijalva also said that this legislation would give environmental justice communities a voice in what permits would be passed for companies in their neighborhoods.

The EPA’s cutbacks have resulted in staff layoffs, which Grijalva said have affected environmental information available to the public.

“When you downgrade science like this administration has done, you begin to see linkages between emissions, toxic chemicals and the general health and well-being for people,” Grijalva said.

Grijalva said they would finish writing the legislation in February and begin promoting it across the country.


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