GreenSpace: Database tracks toxics by zip code

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's free database, Toxics Release Inventory, lets anyone search by zip code, city, or beyond for facilities that are emitting chemicals.

Every day, industries across the nation emit toxic chemicals into the air. Or they release them into streams, spread them on the land, or inject them into the ground.

Want to find out whether any are doing it near you?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a citizen-friendly database that allows people to track what's being released - and by whom - in their zip code, their city, and beyond. It's called the Toxics Release Inventory.

Just by entering your zip code on a map, you can see what facilities are emitting chemicals nearby and which ones they're emitting. You can click on a company name to learn more about where it is, whether its emissions have risen or fallen, and even the name and phone number of a public contact.

Not long ago, residents in Port Richmond and Bridesburg delved into the TRI site - along with other resources - to map and learn about facilities nearby. Then, along with some Clean Air Council folks and some Drexel and Penn scientists, they climbed aboard a bus and took a "toxic tour" of sites in those neighborhoods.

So I went to the database and entered zip code 19134 - Port Richmond. The database shows five facilities. In 2012, one of them had air releases of 4,829 pounds of styrene, which irritates the eyes and respiratory tract.

Clean Air's community health director, John Lee, called the database "a great tool," providing information and empowerment.

The inventory was part of legislation passed in 1986, two years after a cloud of toxic gas escaped from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, and killed thousands of people in a single night.

Lawmakers wanted to promote emergency planning, but they also wanted to give the public more information about ongoing releases of toxic chemicals in their communities.

The program covers 650 chemicals that can cause cancer and other serious health effects, or significant environmental harm. It's a parade of uglies, from mercury to lead to dioxin.

The industries include manufacturing of all sorts, electric power generation, metal mining and hazardous waste treatment.

There are flaws, of course. The TRI program doesn't cover all chemicals or all industries. Oil and natural gas extraction aren't in the program, for instance. Smaller facilities that emit chemicals below certain thresholds are exempt. Also, there's a lag. Here we are in 2014, and the EPA just posted the final 2012 data.

Nevertheless, the program is "online, immediate, free access, searchable, downloadable, and it covers every type of release that is reported," said Adam Kron, an attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. "It was designed to be used by the average citizen."

More broadly, 2012 data shows that New Jersey releases fell 23 percent from the year before. The largest contributing factor, the EPA said, was a 40 percent drop in releases by the DuPont Chambers Works site in Deepwater, which stopped accepting outside waste.

Pennsylvania saw a 7 percent drop in emissions from 2011 to 2012. Releases of the top two chemicals - nitrate compounds and hydrochloric acid aerosols - have declined 82 percent since 2000, primarily because the steel industry and coal-fired power plants have implemented pollution control measures.

Even though the program doesn't advocate for limits on releases, "just by virtue of requiring reporting, industries have voluntarily started decreasing toxic chemicals they release," the Environmental Integrity Project's Kron said. Accountability comes with reporting.

As for the public, "you should know what's going on in your community, near your home," he said. "You get a better sense of what could be affecting your health."

So wade in. Knowledge is power.


Find Toxins in Your Zip Code

The Toxics Release Inventory program contains detailed analyses that allow you to search in several ways, including:

"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. 215-854-5147 @sbauers