King Co. smog ranks high

Associated Press

SEATTLE — King County is in the top 5 percent of U.S. counties when it comes to airborne toxins, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

Traffic congestion, population growth and industrial emissions all are contributing to the air pollution, say federal regulators studying the problem.

The figures are based on 1996 air samples provided by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The results don’t take into account any subsequent population increases, traffic congestion or cleaner burning cars.

"It identifies our region … as having some of the worst levels in the nation in respect to toxics," said Dennis McLerran, executive director of the Puget Sound agency.

"It’s caused us to have some significant concern about that."

The EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment is a detailed look at 33 common air pollutants believed to pose the greatest potential risks to public health in urban areas.

For instance, King County, Los Angeles, New York City — all with a lot of traffic congestion — rank high in levels of the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen found in gasoline.

There are no outdoor airborne standards for the 33 pollutants, only health benchmarks for exposure levels.

The survey, released in August, is a first step toward better understanding air quality in urban areas. The next step, a health risk assessment, is expected to be completed by early next year.

"This is bean counting, not an assessment of risk of human exposure. We’ll be using this for human risk assessment, but not until early next year," EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said.

The national study marks a new phase in estimating air pollutants, exposure and health risks, said spokesman Larry Altose with the state Department of Ecology.

"It’s extremely premature to say we have an unhealthy air toxic situation in this region," Altose said. "All we know from this EPA project is that we rank high compared to other counties, just as other metropolitan regions rank high in the U.S.

"In general, in regional terms, air quality meets the standards — not that it does by a large degree," he added. "The ozone standard is met by a thin margin, and we meet a carbon monoxide standard by a margin almost as thin."

Ozone and carbon monoxide are among six pollutants with ongoing standards, monitors and regulations.

For the past year, Ecology has studied some of the pollutants with a $200,000 EPA grant. The agency also was recently awarded a $500,000 grant to further monitor airborne toxins.

Industrial areas in Seattle place the region among four in the country to warrant such grants. The Department of Ecology is now monitoring south Seattle industrial areas and Beacon Hill. Four additional monitoring sites are planned.

"Traffic problems directly correlate with air-quality concerns, and heavy population equals heavy air pollution," Altose said.

"We’re going to get a handle on toxic air pollutants as soon as we can."

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