STRANGE ANGLO against the metal shredder 2: Literature Review

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) | full review below

  • A study on cancer-causing pollution from metal shredders was performed by Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services and Rice University (2013).
  • Metal shredders produce a small volume of pollution, so they are not regulated by the EPA’s Clean Air Act.
  • Metal shredders produce very toxic pollution, so this study was performed.
  • It found that the metal shredders studied produced between 1.03 and 756 extra cancer cases per million people.
  • This exceeds the EPA’s definition of an acceptable increase in extra cancer cases.
  • Pilsen’s population density is 4 times higher than that of Houston’s.
  • This study doesn’t address the other problems associated with metal shredders/recyclers; e.g. explosions, fires, injuries, and the non-carcinogenic health effects of particulate matter (i.e. asthma, heart attacks, and premature death).
  • $50,000 of campaign contributions have been made from the owners of the proposed facility.
  • $50,000 can make politicians ignore a lot of health problems.
  • According to the study, “Further study is warranted to better understand the metal air pollution levels in the community and if necessary, to evaluate the feasibility of emission controls and identify operational improvements and best management practices for this industry.”
  • I believe we should delay approval of this facility until Chicago’s Department of Public Health studies the existing facility across from Benito Juarez Community Academy.
  • The vote by the zoning board is at 2pm on Friday, February 21st; tomorrow.  Pilsen Alliance is offering rides to City Hall leaving from 1744 W 18th St at 1pm.

A disclaimer
As I mentioned in my previous post, I graduated last May from UIC with a PhD in statistics.  However, my field of expertise is in machine learning; not environmental statistics.  I’m sure there is someone out there with a better understanding of this field than me, but given the lack of facts surrounding this debate I thought it better for someone with some scientific literacy to step up.  As they say these days, “If you see something, say something.”

Resources
If you do an internet search on health risks and metal shredders/recyclers, you’ll find an article from the Houston Chronicle titled “Danger in the Air Near Metal Recyclers,” in addition to a corresponding presentation by Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services [pdf].  If you do a little more digging you can find the peer-reviewed paper behind the presentation: Unanticipated potential cancer risk near metal recycling facilities [paywall].  My UIC account is still active and gives me access the full paper.

Unanticipated potential cancer risk near metal recycling facilities
In summary, Rice University and Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services began a monitoring program of five metal shredders/recyclers following “community complaints of nuisance from smoke, dust and odor”.  Metal shredder emissions are small relative to major polluters like coal power plants, so EPA regulations assume that they don’t create enough pollution to be of concern according to Section 112 of the US Clean Air Act.

Metal [hazardous air pollutant] emissions, from certain types of area sources including metal recyclers are not required to be measured, controlled, inventoried or modeled, while other types of area sources are required to be controlled and measured. As a result there is large uncertainty in regulatory estimates of emissions from area sources generally, and especially from the area sources without effective control requirements, like metal recyclers.

This study tries to reduce some of that uncertainty.  Their focus was on carcinogenic (cancer-causing) particulate matter.  Particulate matter in general consists of particles smaller than 10 microns (one-millionth of a meter) that can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, and premature death.  The authors focused solely on carcinogenic particulates, presumably because the process of torch-cutting used by metal recyclers is similar enough to metal welding and “emissions from metal welding have been well studied.”

They collected particulate matter samples from five metal shredders that, like Pilsen, are located in mixed industrial-residential areas.  They compared those samples to particulate matter samples from 10 areas not near metal recycling facilities as a control.  They found that the levels of nickel and the highly carcinogenic hexavalent chromium exceeded EPA standards at all 5 of the facilities, even in scenarios where the facilities only operated for 1 shift a day, while those carcinogens were not found in any of the 10 control areas.

From those samples they were able to calculate the number of extra cancer cases one could expect from being exposed to the emissions from each of these facilities.  The EPA defines as acceptable an increase of 1 extra cancer case in one million people.  The most conservative estimates produced by the authors (i.e. the cleanest facility, operating for only one shift a day, with the effects only being felt when precisely downwind of the facility) exceeded the EPA’s acceptable risk level, but just barely at 1.03 extra cancer cases per million people.  The most liberal scenario (the dirtiest facility, operating for 3 shifts a day, up or downwind of the facility) produced an estimated 756 extra cancer cases per million people, or 7.56 extra cancer cases in 10,000 people.

To quote their abstract:

Further study is warranted to better understand the metal air pollution levels in the community and if necessary, to evaluate the feasibility of emission controls and identify operational improvements and best management practices for this industry.

Proposed improvements and engineering solutions are also presented on pages 26 and 27 of the presentation pdf.

My Opinion

The literature shows that these are not “spurious environmental concerns” as Latina Familia Unida Ministries claim.  Pilsen has a population density (15,059 people per square mile) that is between 3 and 17 times higher than the neighborhoods studied in Houston (on average 3,567 people per square mile).   That means for every set of lungs inhaling this stuff in Houston, we’ve got 4 in Pilsen.  If Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services is concerned enough to do a study, then Chicago’s Department of Public Health should be 4 times more concerned about the existing metal shredder in Pilsen.  Instead of approving the zoning application of a new facility, they should be reviewing existing ones.

Familia Latina Unida Ministries echo the claims of Pure Metal that “their newly constructed plant will meet strict environmental guidelines, FAR SUPERIOR to older facilities that exist in Chicago and Pilsen.”  In my correspondance with the authors of the above study, I found out the that facilities they studied were between 7 and 70+ years old, and yet they all emitted unsafe levels of carcinogenic particulate matter.  It is their opinion that the torch-cutting cutting process is the primary issue, not the age of the facility.

All of this ignores the other problems associated with metal shredders/recyclers; explosions, fires, injuries, and the non-carcinogenic health effects of particulate matter of the kind that the neighborhood experienced while the coal plants were in operation.

Politics
Our alderman, Danny Solis has received over $50,000 from the owners of the proposed facility.  The last company who donated $50,000 dollars to Solis got to ignore pollution that caused 720 asthma attacks, 66 heart attacks, and killed 42 Chicagoans every year according to a 2001 study by Harvard.  Similarly, there were 200 jobs associated with those coal plants.  Over the course of the 10 years between the time the study came out and the closing of the coal plant, here’s what the cost/benefit analysis looked like for the coal plants:

Pros

  • 200 jobs for 10 years (or 2000 job-years)

Cons

  • 720 asthma attacks per year x 10 years = 7200 asthma attacks
  • 66 heart attacks per year x 10 years = 660 heart attacks
  • 42 premature deaths per year x 10 years = 420 premature deaths

Other

  • $50,000 in campaign contributions
  • Energy for Ohio and Pennsylvania
  • Profits for Midwest Energy

Big numbers can be difficult to think about, so let’s normalize by the number of premature deaths (i.e. divide by 420) to see what accompanied each premature death:

Pros

  • 5 jobs for 1 year (or 1 job for 5 years)

Cons

  • 17 asthma attacks
  • 1.57 heart attacks
  • 1 premature death

Other

  • $119.05 in campaign contributions

Would you be willing to die to let 5 people work for a year?  I wouldn’t.  Before we again go down the path of mindlessly trading lives for jobs and campaign contributions, I suggest we slow it down and do a proper accounting.  As the Houston report suggests, “further study is warranted.”  We already have two metal recycling facilities in the city; one of which is already across the street from Benito Juarez Community Academy.  Let’s try to catch up to Houston and determine the health effects of those facilities in our much denser city before we exacerbate any problems.  I propose we wait a year on the approval of this new facility.  Let’s do a year of study on the pollution from the two existing facilities, and then we’ll have a much better idea on the number of lives we’ll be trading in exchange for the promise of these 90 local jobs, because, as PERRO has said, “they seem to be able to promise everything to anybody.”

The vote by the zoning board is at 2pm on Friday, February 21st; tomorrow.  If you can make it, I suggest you come and voice your opinion.  Pilsen Alliance is offering rides to City Hall leaving from 1744 W 18th St at 1pm.

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