Pollutants in 3 areas triple EPA estimates, study says

Hopkins data include indoor, outdoor sources

March 03, 2004|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Residents of industrial South Baltimore are exposed to cancer-causing pollutants at roughly three times the levels the government estimates, once pollution from indoor sources are factored in, according to a new study by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

The study monitored air inside and outside the homes of 33 residents of Curtis Bay, Brooklyn and Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park - neighborhoods near heavily traveled Interstate 895 and factories that produce paint and other products.

While a government model fairly accurately estimated the levels of pollutants such as benzene that came from outdoor sources such as cars, the study showed it greatly underestimated significant indoor sources, including chloroform, which can come from laundry bleach, cleaners and other household products. The result: It underestimated total personal exposure for residents.

"The public health implications of our findings loom large," said Timothy J. Buckley, a Hopkins associate professor of environmental health sciences and the study's senior author. While previous studies have shown that outdoor air toxins exceed acceptable levels in many neighborhoods nationwide, he said in a release that "our data indicates that because of significant indoor air contributions, these risks are much worse."

Researchers have known since at least the 1980s that indoor air pollution from air fresheners and cleaning solvents exceeds outdoor levels. But the Hopkins researchers said their study, to be published in next month's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, marks the first time scientists have measured the levels of pollutants to which residents are personally exposed and compared them with current government estimates of outdoor air quality.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't include indoor air when estimating people's risk of cancer from exposure to toxic pollutants. The Hopkins study found that lifetime cancer risks are actually three times those estimated using the agency's method.

"The good news is that indoor air sources can be controlled," said lead author Devon C. Payne-Sturgis, a former doctoral student at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health who works for the EPA. "Tobacco smoke is the greatest culprit, but other more subtle contributors, such as cleaning solvents and air fresheners, add up to represent a sizable fraction of the risk."

The Hopkins researchers selected South Baltimore partly because of its proximity to polluters. The neighborhood includes 189 permitted or registered polluters, according to the EPA. To find participants, Hopkins advertised for a recruiter at the Brooklyn library. Local resident Alice O'Malley learned about it from a librarian and helped researchers enlist nonsmoking residents from randomly selected households, including her husband, Michael, and son, Joseph.

Like other participants, Michael O'Malley wore a quarter-sized measuring device clipped to his collar for three days. The family also allowed researchers to put air monitors outside and inside their home.

A lifelong Brooklyn resident, O'Malley said he participated in the study because of what he considers to be a high incidence of cancer in the neighborhood. His wife, for example, is a breast cancer survivor.

When researchers shared the results, O'Malley said he was disappointed they didn't give more specifics. But, he said, he did make changes.

"I learned not to use as many air fresheners," he said. "We use an [attic] air vent more than we did before."

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