How much is too much, when it comes to air pollution? For 8 dangerous chemicals, the US National Research Council (NRC) collected all the data reports out there. They did an analysis to answer this very question. Pollution levels are the focus of their 2013 publication “Acute Exposure Guidelines Levels for Selected Airborne Chemicals”. Levels of the chemicals that are irritating, disabling, and lethal are defined in this new report.
With record levels of pollution at 35 times the World Health Organization standards choking Beijing, air quality is a hot topic around the world. Knowing what chemical concentrations are harmful will help protect workers. This knowledge will also help protect those of us who live near areas contaminated with industrial chemicals.
Each of these chemicals are on my “new vocabulary” list this week. These are words we need to know. One chemical in the report is trimethylbenzene. It is flammable and explosive, part of our fuels and solvents. Trimethylbenzene is found in air pollution, for example around hydraulic fracturing gas drilling – fracking – sites.
• Irritating at 24 ppm (parts per million)
• Disabling at 150 ppm
• Lethal levels – not known
Chloroacetone is also in the report. It is used in photography and to make perfumes and drugs. At low concentrations it causes tearing immediately. Chloroacetone is also known and used as tear gas. At only 0.5 ppm chloroacetone causes burns, breathing spasms, and at 1.6 ppm – death.
6 more toxic chemicals with new recommended levels to stay below for our health and safety:
• boron trifluoride
• perchloryl fluoride
Why We Need to Know
Why should we be thinking about levels of toxic chemicals in the air? Most of the facts in the new NRC report come from studies of how the chemicals affect animals. Effects on people are implied. But aiming to protect human health, Scientist Lisa McKenzie, Ph.D., MPH, at the Colorado School of Public Health, kept track of chemicals in the air pollution around fracking sites. Chemicals including trimethylbenzene. She reported on the effects on people.
Her recent research on air pollution near gas drilling sites shows 2 alarming trends:
- People closest to gas drilling sites had higher risk of effects on breathing and nerves
- People living close to natural gas wells had higher lifetime risks for cancer than people living farther away
Find out more about Lisa’s results here, at the Physicians for Social Responsibility site.
The NRC report on chemical exposure gives levels that can irritate, harm or kill. But these are meant as a guide for the general public, not for those who already have health problems. For the very young or old, people with asthma and other illness, even lower concentrations of these chemicals in the air can hurt.
The Acute Exposure report is freely available electronically to all, at this link: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=15852
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