On May 11, 2005 the US EPA released the nation's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data for 2003. Rich Puchalsky of Grassroots Connection is one of the nation's leading experts on environmental data gathering and interpretation. He has developed search tools for the national Right-To-Know Network, RTK NET, which provides the public with free and accessible tools for using environmental databases.
Can you explain what sort of data the EPA released earlier this month?
Under 1986 "right-to-know" amendments to the Superfund law, certain companies are required to estimate their toxic chemical releases to air, land and water, and report them to the EPA. These "TRI", or Toxic Release Inventory, data are required to be made public.
What are some of the noteworthy trends in the data released this year?
First thing you notice is that EPA claims an overall 6% reduction since 2002. Unfortunately, the releases of some of the most dangerous chemicals — the persistent and bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) like dioxin, lead, mercury, and PCBs have increased by 50 million pounds, or 11%.
Can you put these numbers in some context?
PCB releases increased from 2 million pounds in 2002 to 22 million in 2003, mostly from PCB waste sent to landfills. There were 593 pounds of total releases of dioxin in 2003 — quite a lot when you consider that dioxin releases are typically measured in grams. The large, 93% increase in total dioxin releases since 2002 is mostly due to one wood treatment facility in Louisiana that apparently sent contaminated telephone poles to a landfill. But air emissions of dioxin also increased 14% over 2002.
Is it possible to correlate these releases to building materials?
You can't make precise correlations, but you can spot some items of concern.
One material of concern is the chlorine that is used, among other things, to make PVC. Nine chlor-alkali plants in the US still use an antiquated mercury cell process to produce chlorine. These plants report releases of about 5 tons of mercury to the air every year. In addition, these plants have mostly fugitive emissions — in other words, leaks — that are difficult to estimate with any reliability. And of course, the mercury emissions are only the start of the environmental impact of these plants; some of their chlorine is going to be used to make PVC, and some of that is going to be burned to form dioxin.
For the green building movement, the database is probably most helpful in that it is searchable by facility name. It is possible to find out the toxic emissions reported by a manufacturer that makes a given building product you purchase using our searchable database at http://www.rtknet.org.
Can you explain the limits of Toxics Release Inventory? How reliable are the data?
It is important to understand the limits of the database. For example, the reported emissions are usually estimates, not measurements, with no third party verification. So when a company cites the EPA report as evidence of its emissions reductions, they are referencing their own unverified claim, not an EPA finding. There are also enormous gaps in the data. The law exempts smaller companies from reporting, and many known polluters are not covered by the law, including municipal incinerators. Recall too that TRI Data include fewer than 700 chemicals of the more than 70,000 in use. Significant chemicals, carbon dioxide, for example, which is important with regard to global climate change, are not included.
There are also all sorts of reporting quirks. This year's data are drastically distorted by a court decision that changed the way the metal mining industry reports its emissions. If you took out the metal mining sector, EPA's reported 6% decrease in emissions actually falls to an insignificant decrease of less than 1%.
The TRI database should not be viewed as a comprehensive accounting of toxic chemical emissions. But it is still important, and becoming increasingly so because air monitoring equipment is getting more affordable, and this allows citizen watchdog groups to verify claims.
You are an astro-physicist by training. Does that mean that understanding the TRI is rocket science?
No, but I felt this was more socially useful. That's not to say that the EPA couldn't make things a little easier on the average researcher, but there are a number of sites, like RTK NET, that can help out.
Update on Arsenic-Treated Lumber
Last week the EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released the first year of data from a two-year study to determine the effectiveness of a variety of sealants to reduce the amount of arsenic and chromium leaching from arsenic-treated lumber or CCA. While it is important to note that among other variables, abrasion from normal use was not included in the study, the preliminary data does show reductions between 75 percent and 90 percent, depending on the type of sealant used.
The EPA and industry voluntarily agreed to phase-out CCA-treated lumber as of January, 2004, as a result of HBN's campaign against the use of wood laden with arsenic and chromium. The EPA and CPSC are conducting the sealant study to answer the question of what to do with existing playgrounds and decks made from CCA lumber.
HBN maintains the best way to reduce exposure to arsenic and chromium is to remove and safely dispose CCA wood, however, some homeowners and municipalities may find this option unaffordable. In that context, the study's preliminary results may provide some useful guidance for those choosing the sealant option.
For more information, including links to the preliminary results go to: http://www.epa.gov/oppad001/reregistration/cca/
and on CPSC's web site at: http://www.cpsc.gov/whatsnew.html
HEALTHY BUILDING NEWS SOURCES
 Rich Puchalsky, BS Physics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; MS Astro-Physics, University of Maryland. Richard is responsible for database programming for RTK NET. He is also a consultant to other groups interested in analyzing environmental data. For more information see http://www.grconnect.com.
 The Right-to-Know Network http://www.rtknet.org provides free access to numerous databases and resources on the environment. It was established in order to empower citizen involvement in community and government decision-making.