Seaford's air quality report 'out of whack'

By Lynn R. Parks

The head of Delaware's agency that oversees air quality called "out of whack" a recent report that the air in Seaford is polluted with toxins. "With some degree of comfort, I can say that that report is wrong," said Ali Mirzakhalili, administrator of the state Air Quality Management Section. "The information that was used is not clear to us, but it is likely that it was old, outdated information that is inaccurate." In fact, Mirzakhalili added, a recent state study of air quality indicated that Seaford's air is among the cleanest in the state. The Associated Press recently reported that its analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data indicated that high concentrations of industrial toxins in some Seaford neighborhoods mean that their residents face risks of illness that are 141 times the national average. The risk to residents of other Seaford neighborhoods exceeds 200 times the national average risk, according to the AP analysis. These numbers put Seaford in the top 5 percent of polluted communities in the country, the AP reported. Mirzakhalili said that the analysis, as reported in the (Wilmington) News Journal, was not clear in what "141 times the national average risk" means. "Those are dimensionless numbers," said Mirzakhalili. "They are comparing Seaford to something, but I don't know what that is. Seaford is 141 times, but we don't know what 1 is." The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains data about what industries are releasing what toxins into the air, and in what amounts. According to AP reports, its analysis relied on computer models that predict where those toxins drift. The AP took those predictions and overlaid them on census data to come up with neighborhoods that are most affected by toxins. The analysis did not look at pollutants other than industrial toxins. Additional pollutants include car exhaust and soot from fossil fuel-burning plants. Mirzakhalili said that an error in reporting toxic releases into the air by the Invista nylon plant in Seaford may have led to the "strange, scary" conclusions reached by the Associated Press. He said that in 2003, the plant reported that it had released 4,500 pounds of chromium into the atmosphere. Inhalation of chromium has been linked with an increased risk of lung cancer. But in fact, that report was in error, Mirzakhalili said. "The chromium mostly went to the landfill and the air discharge was virtually zero," he said. Including the chromium release in the analysis "is the only thing that I can think of that would put the risk amount so much out of whack," he added.

State completes study in August
In August, the state completed its own study of the air in five Delaware communities: Martin Luther King Boulevard in Wilmington, Delaware City, Lums Pond State Park near Middletown, Killens Pond State Park near Felton and Seaford. In contrast to the AP analysis, that study indicated that the risk of illness in Seaford from air pollution "is one of the lowest in the state," Mirzakhalili said. In conducting its air toxin assessment, the state set up a monitor near the Shipley State Service Center on Virginia Avenue. The monitor, in place throughout 2003, measured nearly 100 toxins, including those that are found in auto emissions. Then, with the Division of Public Health, scientists calculated actual risks of cancer and of other illnesses, based on the amounts of pollutants in the air. "We calculated actual risk, not relative risk," Mirzakhalili said.

Those calculations are included in the Delaware Air Toxics Assessment Study, which is available online at the division Web site. According to the study, at none of the five stations was any single pollutant present in sufficient quantity to cause an increased risk of cancer or other illness. However, with all the pollutants, the study showed that there is increased risk for illness in all five communities, including Seaford. In Seaford, the study found an expectation of 2.5 additional cases of cancer per 100,000 people (children and adults) who are exposed to the pollutants. Less than one additional person would be expected to become ill with a non-cancer illness, out of 100,000 people (children and adults) exposed to the pollutants. But among 100,000 children exposed to the pollutants, an additional 1.3 would be expected to get sick with a non-cancer illness. As might be expected, the highest concentration of pollutants was found at the inner city, Wilmington site. Seaford was tops in two of the pollutants, formaldehyde and bromomethane. Bromomethane is found in some fertilizers and pesticides and is used to control fungus. Formaldehyde is released from power plants, incinerators and some manufacturing facilities and is found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust. The study indicates surprise at the high levels of formaldehyde. Further research is needed, it said, to identify the source. Primary pollutants of concern in Seaford were the same as at the other four sites: carbon tetrachloride, chromium and trichloroethylene, all carcinogens, and manganese. Chronic inhalation of manganese can result in damage to the nervous system.

Air pollution sources in the area
Mirzakhalili said that there are two primary sources of pollutants in Seaford: the Invista nylon plant and the Seaford power plant. New rules that would limit its emissions are under consideration for the power plant, he said. Mirzakhalili admits that there are concerns about the air that Delawareans breathe. "We do have issues that we need to address," he said. In 2006, the Air Quality Management Section intends to complete a more comprehensive study of the state's air, and the risk it poses to those who breathe it. "Related health risks to specific communities will be evaluated and partnerships will be created to help mitigate adverse impacts," according to the toxins report. The state then will create a risk management plan to address the toxins in the air and ways to address the risks they pose.

For your information: The Delaware Air Toxins Assessment Study is available on the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Web site, www.dnrec.state.de.us. Go to the Air and Waste Management link, then the Air Quality Management Section. Click on Air Toxics Assessment Study.

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