As I sat around the park few weekends ago, I thought how great it was to be outside, enjoying the sun and the fresh air. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Chatham Countys air quality has been ranked in the worst tenth percentile in the entire nation by a monitoring group called scorecard.org.
Ive always heard about Atlantas air quality issues, but Savannah has not had the same sort of problems. This is due to the type of monitoring performed, which analyzes the ozone levels (as well as carbon monoxide, particulates, and sulfur and nitrogen dioxides) in the air, titled the Air Quality Index (AQI).
Savannah is not typically burdened with this problem and does not have ozone action days, or days when residents are warned not to participate in physical activity and to fill their gas tanks up after 6 p.m. to reduce the risk of ozone exposure.
So where does our air quality fail? Scorecard.org creates Environmental Release Reports, which combine data from the most recent U.S. EPA Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) together with authoritative information on the potential health hazards of particular chemicals to show what chemicals in our area may pose health risks and what companies are responsible.
Scorecard reports cover only the pollution from industrial facilities that were required to report to TRI in 2000, and only 650 listed TRI chemicals. The reports do not cover all toxic chemicals and omit many important pollution sources, such as motor vehicles and small businesses.
What I read was a distressing eye-opener, yet offered a glimmer of hope. Chatham County ranks in the lowest (worst) tenth percentile in total environmental releases, cancer risk score (air and water releases), air releases in recognized carcinogens, and air releases of recognized developmental toxicants (included are carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds).
Chatham County finished in the lowest twentieth percentile in air releases of recognized reproductive toxicants, and the bottom thirtieth percentile in non-cancer risk score (air and water releases).
As bad as that sounds, Chatham was still only sixth-worst in the state in pounds of chemicals released -- 6,410,390 lbs emitted as compared to Bartows 22,482,899 lbs. Monroe, Putnam, Richmond and Heard Counties all emit more than Chatham as well.
This is a large cause for concern for Chatham County residents, who are exposed to a laundry list of chemicals emitted into the air. For example, over 700,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid are being pumped into the atmosphere, along with 500,000 pounds of ammonia, 330,000 pounds of sulfuric acid, 270,000 pounds of toluene, and 47,000 pounds of formaldehyde. This does not even touch on some of the chemicals being emitted that are known carcinogens (other than formaldehyde).
Over two million pounds of arsenic, and 8,000 pounds of lead compounds are being emitted into our local atmosphere. Both of these chemicals have a long, detailed history of health risks, yet we are still being exposed to them, often without our knowledge.
To determine where these emissions are coming from, all you need to do is look up and down the Savannah River. The view from the Talmadge Bridge is by no means a panoramic view for the scrapbook. It may be breathtaking, but unfortunately, that is a literal translation.
The constant levels of industry located along the river are the top emitters in the region, with facilities owned by Kerr-McGee and International Paper topping the list of polluters, followed by Engelhard Corporation, Weyerhaeuser Company (in Port Wentworth), Savannah Electric Kraft Plant (in Port Wentworth), EMD Chemicals, INtercat, Great Dane Trailers, Citgo Asphalt Refining Company, and Georgia Pacific Resins (in Port Wentworth) rounding out the top ten.
This is not to say these companies are doing anything illegal. It is more a result of the low air quality standards established by the EPA. Since the data for this report were gleaned from the TRI being sent to the EPA, the companies are likely within their limits for each pollutant.
Unfortunately, that does nothing to prevent residents of Savannah and Chatham County from inhaling arsenic, lead, sulfuric acid, or hydrochloric acid.
Still, there is hope on the horizon. Either due to EPA regulations or just by cleaning up their own emissions, total cancer risk due to local industry has decreased 51 percent from 1998 to 2002. Now, if youve been living in Chatham for that period of time, you were still exposed to much higher levels of chemicals than if you have arrived post-2002. But at least its a start in the right direction. Hopefully, we will see another 50 percent decrease by 2006.
For a complete list of chemicals and polluting sources in Chatham County visit www.scorecard.org and enter your zip code.
Tommy Linstroth works to promote sustainable development in the
Southeast. He is the Sustainability Associate for Melaver, Inc and can
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