Nanoparticles and the unknown


Governor Kate Brown addresses the Cleaner Air Oregon Advisory Committee at the first meeting.

When we convened last week for the first Cleaner Air Oregon Advisory Committee meeting, members were heartened to hear the Governor reiterate her commitment to this process and to the goal of health based standards that protect the most vulnerable populations. And possibly most importantly, her call for committee members to think big when she suggested that she envisions this new program to lead the nation.

Those platitudes are easily lost when you get into the minutia that is air emissions regulations. It is doubtful that we will all be seeing eye-to-eye throughout this process, but it is clear that the 24 individuals on the Cleaner Air Oregon Advisory Committee bring a tremendous breadth of experience and knowledge  to this discussion.  And we will need it.

Up first on the topics of consideration were the fundamental questions of:

1. Applicability – What businesses will Cleaner Air Oregon rules apply to:
2. Pollutant list – should the rules address Oregon’s list of 52 air toxics, include all 187 on the EPA list, or go with stronger science of established bodies which recognize upward of 1000+ toxics and have established credible processes to evaluate and develop new standards?

On the first point, applicability seems the simplest.  All sources of toxic air pollution, which exist today or seek to do business in Oregon, should be covered by these rules. It is of course the existing health risks – from existing sources – which has driven this process so urgently this year.  And while it may seem obvious to most that Oregon’s new rules should apply to both, that is existing and new sources, state officials like to characterize the findings of the workgroup as mixed.  That is, that some programs include both, and “others” only new sources.  In reality, of the six alternative state programs that were reviewed by the technical workgroup, only one, Washington’s,  applied to only new sources.

Additionally, advocates would like to see the discussion of applicability go beyond the scope of new or existing to include a more health based evaluation of what is considered “de minimis.”  This is the first threshhold upon which the decision is made about whether or not a facility’s emissions are significant enough to be addressed by Oregon air rules.  The health based model would be a simple shift from defining “de minimis” on the toxicity of pollution, not purely on the weight or total volume of emissions.

We must remember that colored glass manufacturing skirted air regulations because of precisely the concept of “being too small.” Before allowing a “De minimis” exemption, regulators must consider whether sources operate in an area where the ambient cumulative concentrations of toxics is determined to be a health risk.

The second point is one that will potentially require the dismantling of a cornerstone of Oregon’s current air toxics program.  The current program has focused on the identification of 52 ambient benchmark concentrations for air toxics called ABC’s.  To do this Oregon convened the Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee, made up of volunteers with various science and engineering expertise, charged with reviewing existing literature to support current toxics standards. The initial committee helped both to identify what toxics should be included in Oregon’s program, as well as at what “acceptable level.”

But the six other state programs that were considered by the Cleaner Air Oregon Technical Workgroup last summer all look at much larger lists of pollutants when considering regulations.   At the minimum end, EPA has a list of 187 Hazardous Air Pollutants, conceived in the 1990’s, but to which nothing as been subsequently added.  In contrast, California’s program has standards and guidance for over 800 air toxics. In addition to an inclusive list of pollutants, California has dedicated substantial resources to researching and developing risk based concentrations (RBCs) for a large number of the listed toxics. DEQ could incorporate California’s RBCs into the Oregon program to provide certainty upfront and to conserve limited agency resources for implementation of the program.

In practicality, despite Oregon employing an independent review process through its Air Toxics Science Advisory Committee, the state has decided time and again that California’s standards are scientifically supportable.  In fact, 51 of the 52 toxics on Oregon’s list are set at the same level as California.  California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is widely recognized for scientific excellence. OEHHA employs hundreds of highly educated and trained professional staff which includes toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians and physicians; many have international reputations in their scientific fields. It is clear that Oregon would be well-served to adopt the determinations by the California board outright and forgo the lengthy and costly process of making independent determinations.

This is critical so Oregon can ensure residents that it can create health based standards that can address risks known and that may become known in the future as the growing field of monitoring and understanding risks brings better information to the fore.

One such area is in regards to pollutants smaller than PM2.5, or nano-particles, that the World Health Organization has already indicated may be addressed in the next edition of its air quality guidelines. Last month new research was published that revealed magnetite particles, derived from iron oxide, were present in the brain tissue of 37 people. Other studies have linked such particles to Alzheimer’s disease. But as of yet, there is little monitoring or robust scientific data to prove causality. It is troubling to think that Oregon would not ensure a mechanism to adequately address risk from emerging science.  But it is very difficult to envision how Oregon could in a timely and feasible way utilizing the current Oregon air toxics review process.

The decision for Oregon to broadly adopt not just California’s highly regarded pollutant list and standards, but also the mechanism to include future determinations by the OEHHA, would make it far easier for Oregon to adopt a broader range of pollutants into its program, as well as establishing an effective strategy for inclusion of future pollutants and new science to evaluate risk levels.

The importance of getting this right is fundamental to Cleaner Air Oregon achieving the Governor’s goals of health protective air standards. We hope that DEQ/OHA staff and the co-chairs of the committee will see fit to more robust discussion of this topic at the next meeting.

The public is free to submit comments on all Cleaner Air Oregon Advisory Committee agenda discussion topics.  If you have an opinion about what list of pollutants Oregon should include in its new Health Based air standards, please submit it to DEQ/OHA cleanerair team:

10.20.2016 Letter to CAO AC Co-Chairs

To see all “Big Tent Air Coalition” documents, including public comments on permanent glass manufacturing rules, VW Diesel Settlement,  and the Cleaner Air Oregon rulemaking process, please visit the “Big Tent” page.









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