The Houston Health Department has found high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, in neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel, according to a new report released Thursday.
The Department of Health report, in collaboration with One Breath Partnership and the Environmental Integrity Project, was the result of continuous air monitoring over a period of one year at three locations along the sea channel. It found that formaldehyde concentrations exceeded federal screening levels in all three locations, meaning an increased risk of cancer for residents who live nearby.
âThese are the same communities where we are seeing an over-concentration of facilities and bad actors operating in these neighborhoods,â said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
The highest levels were measured at the Cloverleaf Air Monitor, where the average annual concentration of formaldehyde was more than 13 times higher than the US Environmental Protection Agency’s chronic disease screening level.
The report found that low-income communities of color are the hardest hit, particularly residents of Manchester, Harrisburg, Meadowbrook, Allendale, Northshore and Galena Park.
âThis is yet more proof that communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods really live with these cumulative risks from the multiple pollutants they are exposed to on a daily basis,â said Nelson.
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In addition to causing certain types of cancer, formaldehyde can also irritate the eyes, skin, nose and throat.
The research was funded by a grant from the EPA, after the agency’s national air toxics assessment indicated that formaldehyde was the main carcinogenic chemical in some census tracts of Houston. Although some state air monitors measure formaldehyde, The health department was keen to conduct further targeted research to fully understand the scope and sources of formaldehyde, according to Loren Hopkins, head of environmental sciences at HHD.
“What this survey did was provide a lot more hourly data in this area that we were concerned about due to the national assessment of toxic substances in the air indicating that he had a high risk of cancer, on the base of formaldehyde, âshe said.
Although some facilities emit formaldehyde directly, previous research has shown that 95% of the formaldehyde in Houston’s air is formed by other chemicals reacting together, Hopkins said – some of which are not toxic in themselves.
In addition to this, formaldehyde can then react with other chemicals in the air to form ozone smog, which is itself a health hazard that can make breathing more difficult and increase the frequency of asthma attacks.
âWhat we have are chemicals that are really not a health problem in and of themselves come together to form formaldehyde, which causes cancer. And then the formaldehyde combines with other chemicals, which cause ozone, âshe said. “If we can just start with this seemingly harmless pollutant and get it under control, there is so much more we can do to protect the health of the community.”
Formaldehyde precursors include ethylene, isoprene, propylene, and other volatile organic compounds. Along the sea channel, these precursor pollutants mainly come from petrochemical facilities, according to the report.
Hopkins said she hopes regulators at the state and federal levels will use this information to better regulate these precursor pollutants.
“A better understanding that we are emitting these things that create formaldehyde, which pose a higher risk than it should be, will help regulators to come forward and determine exactly what kinds of rules need to be tightened so that we can mitigate the risk, âshe said.
Ilan Levin, Texas director for the Environmental Integrity Project, said that at the state level, he believes there are several actions Texas Environmental Quality Commission regulators could take relatively quickly, such as setting limits. emission of these precursor pollutants in atmospheric permits.
âNow that they know formaldehyde is a real problem in these communities, we hope the state will be a little more protective in the permits they issue,â he said. “I hope this is a wake-up call for regulators.”
Hopkins, of the Department of Health, said she hoped to see it tackled nationwide as well, as any place with a concentration of industrial emissions would likely see this secondary formaldehyde formation as well.
âWe can deal with this locally at the source by trying to really work on these pollutants that are the precursors, but it’s a pretty big problem,â she said. “If we just fix it in Texas, it’s a band-aid, and we really have to think about it nationally.”