Cancer risk high in Madison County, EPA says

People living in nearly 600 neighborhoods across the country, including parts of Madison County, are breathing concentrations of toxic air pollutants that put them at a much greater risk of contracting cancer, according to 2002 data set to be issued today from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Parts of Madison County and Los Angeles had the highest cancer risks in the nation -- 1100 in 1 million and 1200 in 1 million, according to EPA data. They were followed by two neighborhoods in Allegheny County, Pa., and one in Tuscaloosa County, Ala.

The National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment results expected to be issued today are based on pollution released in 2002. The last such assessment was in 2006, which covered 1999 emissions.

The average cancer risk across the country is 36 in 1 million, which is a decline from 41.5 people in 1 million in the 2006 assessment.

Specifics on Madison County and data on St. Clair County were not immediately available Tuesday.

Kathy Andria, president of the environmental group American Bottom Conservancy, said she was surprised by the county's placement on the list.

"Everytime we go to a public hearing on anything that has to do with air pollution, we always bring up the cancer rate, but we had no idea we were No. 2 in the country," she said.

Andria pointed to the refineries and hazardous waste incinerators, and coal and steel plants in the metro-east and St. Louis area. "There can be industries and people living side by side, but the industries have to be responsible and put the controls on that are required," she said.

Kathleen Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said the statistics are startling.

"What the data suggests is the standards are too low or there are companies not in compliance," Smith said. "It really weighs heavily on the government agency whose job it is to protect public health."

Smith said the public needs to ask what the EPA will do to protect residents.

"We can buy organic food so that we don't get carcinogens from pesticides and herbicides, but there's nobody who can stop breathing because there's carcinogens in the air," Smith said.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1,413 Madison County residents and 1,338 St. Clair County residents will be diagnosed with cancer in 2009. The organization's estimates include all forms of cancer and not just those that are tied to toxic air pollutants.

The levels of 80 cancer-causing substances released by automobiles, factories, and other sources in the greater risk areas exceed a 100 in 1 million cancer risk.

That means that if 1 million people breathed air with similar concentrations over their lifetime, about 100 additional people would be expected to develop cancer because of their exposure to the pollution.

"If we are in between 10 in 1 million and 100 in 1 million we want to look more deeply at that. If the risk is greater than 100 in 1 million, we don't like that at all ... we want to investigate that risk and do something about it," said Kelly Rimer, an environmental scientist with the EPA, in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.

"Air toxic risks are local. They are a function of the sources nearest to you," said Dave Guinnup, who leads the groups that perform the risk assessments for toxic air pollutants at EPA. "If you are out in the Rocky Mountains, you are going to be closer to 2 in a million. If you are in an industrial area with a lot of traffic, you are going to be closer to 1100 in 1 million."

People living in parts of Coconino County, Ariz., and Lyon County, Nev., had the lowest cancer risk from air toxics. The counties with the least toxic air are Kalawao County, Hawaii, and Golden Valley County in Montana.

The analysis predicts the concentrations of 124 different hazardous air pollutants, which are known to cause cancer, respiratory problems and other health effects by coupling estimates of emissions from a variety of sources with models that attempt to simulate how the pollution will disperse in the air. Only 80 of the chemicals evaluated are known to cause cancer, EPA officials said.

The information is used by federal, state and local agencies to identify areas in need of more monitoring and attention.