Reduction of auto emissions urged

Health advocates call for passage of state bill

carmakers likely to oppose

December 28, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Pointing to a study showing an elevated risk of pollution-related cancer in Maryland, a group of health and environmental advocates said yesterday that they would push for legislation next year requiring Maryland to join 11 other states that require new vehicles to be equipped with technology designed to reduce airborne emissions.

The bill, which will be sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, would bring Maryland in line with standards originally adopted in California for limiting releases of three known or suspected cancer-causing chemicals.

Rejected by the General Assembly two years ago, the so-called Clean Cars Program is expected to face continued resistance from the auto industry.

Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland and a veteran environmental lobbyist, said at a news conference at Sinai Hospital that a new report by his group shows the cancer risk associated with the three chemicals is 40 times higher in Maryland than the federal Environmental Protection Agency's benchmark.

"These numbers are staggering," Heavner said. "This reinforces the notion that air pollution is the silent killer."

But industry groups and representatives of motorists will be examining the proposed program for costs and benefits. Even by the advocates' own estimates, the initiative could be a tough sell.

Heavner said the added cost per vehicle of installing the required upgrades - such as improved catalytic converters and better seals and gaskets - would add $100 to $300 to the cost of a typical vehicle.

"It's not expensive stuff. It's not space-age stuff," he said.

But Heavner pointed out that Maryland is not far out of line with other states in the prevalence of cancers caused by airborne toxins - though the risk is almost six times as high in Baltimore as in the least-affected county, Somerset.

The required upgrades, Heavner said, could prevent one additional case of cancer over the course of 70 years in 25,000 babies born statewide - or one in 16,000 in Baltimore.

The trade-off between higher automobile costs versus reducing the risk of cancer is likely to be examined critically by pro-automobile interests.

"We're going to scrutinize this to the hilt," said John Townsend, government affairs director for AAA Mid-Atlantic. If it imposes a disproportionate burden on motorists, he said, "it won't cut the mustard with us."

A coalition of automakers is expected to oppose the bill. Trade groups have estimated the increased costs in the thousands of dollars.

But health care professionals at the news conference said the guidelines are worth adopting because of the lethal nature of the carcinogens involved and the high cost of treating even a relatively few extra cancer cases.

One of the three airborne toxins that the required technology would reduce is benzene, which Sinai hematologist Dr. Stephen Noga said is known as "the mother of all carcinogens."

Noga said exposure to benzene is known to increase the risk of leukemia, lymphoma and a usually fatal form of anemia.

The other chemicals that the program seeks to reduce are acetaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene, both classified by the EPA as probable cancer-causing agents.

According to the EPA, motor vehicles are the largest source of emissions of all three chemicals in Maryland. The toxins are components of gasoline or diesel that are released into the atmosphere when fuel is not fully burned.

The equipment that the advocates want the state to require would cut the escape of the chemicals into the atmosphere.

According to Environment Maryland - a recent spinoff of the activist group MaryPIRG - California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and eight other states, representing 30 percent of the U.S. auto market, already require such equipment.

The degree to which air quality would improve as a result of the program depends on how the changes are measured. Heavner said that if the program is implemented, Maryland could cut emissions of the chemicals by 57 percent to 79 percent over the next two decades.

But the bulk of the reductions would come anyway as a result of changes in federal requirements. According to Environment Maryland, the added state program would cut benzene emissions by 13 percent over the changes called for under federal rules.

Bobo, who sponsored similar legislation two years ago only to see it die in a House committee, said she believes the climate for the legislation has improved with the election of Democrat Martin O'Malley as governor. She said she feels the incoming administration will be more active on environmental policy than the outgoing administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"This will be the year that Maryland does move forward and adopts this legislation," she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Cancer risk by county

Percentage of

risk from cars,

Cancer trucks and

County risk factor* other vehicles

Allegany 23.8 66

Anne Arundel 38.8 70

Baltimore 45.3 71

Baltimore City 62.1 73

Calvert 17.8 64

Caroline 11.6 66

Carroll 25.1 59

Cecil 21.5 64

Charles 25.1 67

Dorchester 14.9 66

Frederick 39.2 31

Garrett 13.5 47

Harford 30.7 69

Howard 35.6 70

Kent 15.7 64

Montgomery 45 65

Prince George's 41 72

Queen Anne's 16.7 63

St. Mary's 16.6 66

Somerset 11.3 68

Talbot 17.8 66

Washington 30.5 47

Wicomico 22.7 53

Worcester 16.8 66*Cancer risk factor is the factor by which 1999 air toxin levels of acetaldehyde, benzene and 1,3-butadiene exceeded the Clean Air Act carcinogenic benchmark of one cancer case per million people exposed for 70 years.

[Source: EPA data compiled by Environment Maryland]

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