Indiana children breathe some of the nation's most toxic air, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The analysis of 2009 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data ranked the state sixth highest in the nation in terms of toxic air emissions from electric power plants.
When read in conjunction with recent research findings suggesting that environmental factors may be more important than genetics in the development of autism spectrum disorders, the report's findings present an ominous scenario for Hoosier parents, especially those raising families in the heavily polluted Ohio River ecosystem.
"Power plants are the biggest industrial toxic air polluters in our country, putting children and families at risk by dumping deadly and dangerous poisons into the air we breathe," said Dan Lashof, the NRDC's Climate Center director, in a press release accompanying the July 20 issuance of Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States.
Co-authored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Toxic Power analyzes data compiled in the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory. Federal law requires polluting industries to make annual TRI reports on any of 682 toxic chemicals released into the air, water or land.
In Indiana, power plant emissions account for 68 percent of the state's total TRI releases and 7 percent of the toxic pollution from all U.S. power plants.
Toxic, but not illegal
American Electric Power runs the state's most toxic facility, the Rockport Power Plant on the river in Spencer County. The Ohio-based company reported releasing 3.5 million pounds of TRI chemicals from the Rockport facility in 2009.
Company spokesperson Melissa McHenry downplayed the TRI's significance, saying EPA has determined the reported chemicals are of "low toxicity."
"AEP and utilities that rely on coal to generate electricity typically will have large numbers in the toxics release inventory," she said in a phone interview. "It is simply a report listing pounds of certain chemicals emitted, and we tend to have high volumes."
With respect to the health impacts from the neurotoxin mercury and other chemicals, McHenry said: "EPA sets the standards for health impacts. We presume that they do the scientific assessment and set the parameters to protect human health."
The company's TRI releases, she said, are in compliance with EPA regulations.
Coal's chemical legacy
Toxic Power focused on power plants because, it says, they are the largest source of toxic industrial stack emissions in the United States.
"In 2009, coal- and oil-fired power plants accounted for nearly 50 percent of all reported toxic pollution from industrial sources," the report says. "The next largest sector, chemical processing and manufacturing, emitted less than one third of the electric sector's total."
The report focuses on the top 20 polluting states and found air in the Ohio River Valley to be the nation's most toxic. All six states through which the nation's 10th longest river flows made the NRDC list, five in the top 10.
Ohio ranked first with 44.5 million pounds; Pennsylvania was second with 41.5 million pounds; Kentucky was fourth with 32 million pounds; Indiana was sixth with 26.8 million pounds; West Virginia was eighth with 21.5 million pounds; and Illinois was 17th, with 5.6 million pounds.
A deeper analysis of the 2009 TRI data by NUVO found the heaviest concentration of polluting industries are located along an 80-mile stretch of the Ohio River in Southwest Indiana and Northwest Kentucky. From Posey County, Ind., to Hancock County, Ky., industries in 13 counties reported 166.8 million pounds of all TRI chemicals released into the valley environment. That's more than half of the 318.8 million pounds of TRI releases reported by 123 counties in the six Ohio River states.
Environmental links to autism
Toxic Power says those power plant pollutants, including mercury, hydrochloric acid and other metals, are "known or believed to contribute to or exacerbate a wide variety of health conditions."
"Air toxics from coal-fired power plants cause cancer, birth defects, and respiratory illness," said Dr. Lynn Ringenberg from Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Just one of those air toxics, mercury, damages the developing brains of fetuses, infants, and small children. It robs our children of healthy neurological development and native intelligence."
Results of a new study of twins with autism and autism spectrum disorders by Stanford University researchers suggested environment might have a stronger liability link than genetics.
"Susceptibility to ASD has moderate genetic heritability and a substantial shared twin environmental component," the authors conclude.
Though local studies have yet to expand on these findings, certain correlations are evident. In Indiana, for example, a correlation exists between areas of greater toxic emissions and higher demand for special education.
One in six Indiana public school children received special education in 2009 for learning disabilities, mild mental retardation, autism and 14 other conditions, according to Indiana Department of Public Education data.
In the 19 Indiana counties closest to the Ohio, one in five public school children were in special education. In Evansville, it was 22 percent. Twenty miles to the west, in Mount Vernon, it was 26 percent.
Additional chemicals released in large amounts by Indiana power plants — such as arsenic — may also be cause for concern when it comes to developmental disabilities.
A 2010 study in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, for example, found a significant relationship between mental retardation and developmental delays in children and exposure to arsenic in soil samples near their mothers' residences.
The TRI database quantifies a variety of industrial chemicals released from power plants. The AES plant at South Harding and I-465 on Indianapolis's southwestside , for example, reported 1.6 million pounds of 18 different toxins in 2009.
All coal-fired power plants release mercury, which Toxic Power singles out due to its acute toxicity. "Generally, the reporting threshold for electric generating facilities is 25,000 pounds or more of an individual pollutant," the report says. " The reporting threshold for mercury and mercury compounds is 10 pounds."
Researchers at the University of Calgary in 1999 exposed snail brain neurons to low levels of mercury and videotaped the resulting damage. Calling mercury a "potent neurotoxin," they said other heavy metals — including aluminum, lead, cadmium and manganese — did not produce the same degenerative effect.
Nationwide, electricity generation accounted for 75 percent of all mercury air pollution, Toxic Power notes. Power plants reported nearly 71,000 pounds of mercury released into the air in 2009.
Indiana's 3,670 pounds of mercury released ranked fourth nationwide. Seven of the state's top 10 power plant polluters operate on or near the Ohio River, accounting for more than 60 percent of mercury emissions from Indiana power plants, according to Toxic Power.
A third of the state total – 1,226 pounds – came from the Rockport plant, which, McHenry said, has "one of the very few mercury-specific control technologies." Called activated carbon injection, she said, "it's an advancement of that technology specifically designed to achieve higher levels of mercury emission reduction."
Steven Higgs is a freelance writer and editor of The Bloomington Alternative.
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