State’s air quality raises risk of cancer |

State’s air quality raises risk of cancer

Californians and New Yorkers have a higher cancer risk than the rest of the nation due to breathing the country’s dirtiest air, according to a new federal EPA study.

Western Nevada County was rated with the country’s 10th worst air by the American Lung Association in recent years. Additionally, a heat spike last July created the worst ozone levels ever recorded here and an air alert.

But those ratings are for ozone – smog if you will – which is mostly imported here from the Sacramento Valley and Bay Area, according to Joe Fish at the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District in Grass Valley. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent report on state cancer risk focuses on benzene, a gasoline byproduct linked to the pump and emissions. It also includes chemicals in dry cleaning plants, paint, aerosols and cigarette smoke.

All of those things can harm humans and cause maladies in high concentrations, but there is a room for hope and no need for panic, according to county and state air experts.

The federal study said benzene is responsible for 25 percent of California’s spike, but you can avoid it at the pump by using some common sense, Fish said.

“Walk away from your vehicle when you’re refueling so that you don’t have to breathe those fumes that are escaping,” Fish said Wednesday. Also, read the instructions on how to use a gas pump properly, and you will be further protected, he said.

Insert the nozzle, tilt it down, use the latch on the back of the handle, step away and wait three seconds before removing the handle to let the black rubber boot trap the benzene emissions, Fish said.

Those boots have been on California gas pump handles for almost 20 years and were the state’s initial attack on benzene emissions, according to Jerry Martin at the California Air Resources Board. The state has also cut the amount of benzene in gasoline three times during those years and managed to improve the high numbers.

But the federal EPA study doesn’t include diesel emission numbers, Martin said, meaning California’s air is even worse than New York’s, despite the assessment’s conclusion that New York was the worst. Due to the state’s sheer numbers of people and their diesel truck and agriculture engines, the bad air here far exceeds New York’s.

“We have a robust program to reduce toxic exposure,” Martin said. “But diesel represents 70 percent of all toxics that Californians are exposed to.” The benzene and other chemicals in the federal EPA report represent only 30 percent of the problem, Martin said, causing state officials to think the federal report is skewed.

However bad things are, the benzene vapor recovery boots on pumps work, if used properly, Martin said.

“If you went to Nevada and gassed up, you’d have twice as much benzene on your breath the next day there than you would here,” he said. “It continues to improve.”

The federal report is not the “end of the world,” Fish said, and people should not flock to the far reaches of it to escape the air here. But, he said, the report points to chemical uses that are adding to air pollution in California.

“There are a wide range of consumer products that are toxic,” Fish said. “How many people in California use hair spray? Millions of cans of hair spray and it all goes up in the air; not much of it reaches the hair.

“Even wood smoke has toxins in it,” Fish said. “But in Nevada County, there’s not much industrial pollution; we’re not that bad compared to other places.”

The National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment found the third worst air in Oregon, followed by Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. The cleanest states in the study were Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The national average cancer risk from dirty air in the study was 41.5 people per million, with New York at 68 per in million and California at 66 per million.


To contact staff writer Dave Moller, e-mail or call 477-4237.

According to the EPA, New York state residents stand the highest chance of developing cancer from air toxins in the United States, at an estimated 68 residents per million.

Highest risk

1. New York

2. California

3. Oregon

4. Washington, D.C.

5. New Jersey

Lowest risk

1. Wyoming

2. South Dakota

3. Montana

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