TRI Data Shows Increase in U.S. Industry Toxic-Waste Production

TRI Data Shows Increase in U.S. Industry Toxic-Waste Production

Toxic waste generated by U.S. industry jumped more than 25% in 2000, according to data recently released by the U.S. EPA as part of the federal Toxics Release Inventory, established by Congress in 1986 as the nation's community right-to-know program.

The EPA’s TRI data show about 38 billion pounds of toxic waste managed in 2000, with another 7.1 billion pounds released directly to the air, land, and water. Louisiana led the nation in toxic waste generated, with more than nine billion pounds generated, or approximately one quarter of the nation's toxic waste. Nevada led the nation in direct releases, with 14% of the nation's pollution, mostly from the mining industry.

"The billions of pounds of toxic pollution and toxic waste documented today should show our decision-makers why we need a law that phases out the use of the most toxic chemicals," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for U.S. PIRG, a public interest advocacy organization.

Thousands of facilities were required for the first time in 2000 to report their releases of persistent toxic chemicals like dioxin and mercury—chemicals that persist in ecosystems and accumulate in the human body, dramatically increasing the chances of exposure and detrimental health effects. Companies reported releasing 12 million pounds of these persistent chemicals in 2000 and generated nearly 72 million pounds of waste containing these chemicals.

"For chemicals like dioxin and mercury, this toxic pollution is almost guaranteed exposure," said Baumann. "These millions of pounds of toxic pollution also demonstrate a major failing in current law—chemicals go into use with little testing and regulators have almost no ability to get them off the market." According to U.S. PIRG, the Toxic Substances Control Act doesn't mandate pre-market testing for toxic chemicals and makes it very difficult for EPA to phase out or ban a chemical.

The 2000 data represent the first year that industries have been required to report pollution and wastes containing dioxin. Dioxin is a notorious chemical created in industrial processes that burn or use chlorine or chlorinate materials, and is a highly potent cancer agent also linked to damage to the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. The chemical is not only toxic, but persists in the environment and accumulates in the body to such a degree that the World Health Organization estimates a "safe" daily intake of the most toxic form of dioxin to be 1-4 trillionths of a gram per kilogram of body weight. Industries reported 495 thousand grams of dioxin released to the environment or generated in toxic waste, with about 100 thousand grams released directly to air, land, and water. The Bush administration has stalled on issuing a long-awaited final assessment of dioxin's health threats, the release of which would trigger the first steps toward developing new protections against dioxin exposure.

According to U.S. PIRG, mercury pollution is also particularly striking in the new pollution data: industries released 4.3 million pounds of mercury and mercury compounds to the environment and generated 4.9 million pounds of mercury compounds in toxic waste. By comparison, a teaspoon of mercury deposited every year can contaminate a 20-acre lake to the point that fish are unsafe to eat. A 2001 report by U.S. PIRG and the Environmental Working Group found that fish contamination is already so high that eating fish exposes 1 in 4 pregnant women to levels of mercury that could threaten a developing fetus. The Bush administration's "Clear Skies Initiative" would allow three times more mercury pollution than full enforcement of the current Clean Air Act.

Metal mining and utilities were identified as the nation's biggest polluters, with 3.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released by mines, nearly half of total chemical releases, and 1.2 billion pounds released by the utilities and by mines.