Many industrial processes require the use of toxic substances. These substances must be properly handled to prevent harm to people, land, and water. During the 1970s and early 1980s concerns grew about how toxic substances were being handled. For instance, tons of toxic waste were discovered dumped in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls. Oil containing dioxin was sprayed on the streets of Times Beach, Missouri, turning it into a ghost town; people can’t live there to this day. Concerns came to a head in 1984, when a malfunction at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India released a cloud of poisonous gas that killed more than 3,000 people overnight, and 15,000-20,000 eventually (5-7 times as many as were killed in the 9/11 attacks). Shortly thereafter, a serious release of toxic gas occurred in Institute, West Virginia. In response, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986, and the Pollution Prevention Act in 1990. These laws require facilities to report releases, transfers, and waste management activities of toxic materials.
The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program of the EPA gathers this information and makes it available to the public on their website. In addition, they publish annual fact sheets, including fact sheets for each of the 50 states. The TRI data does not cover all toxic materials and all facilities, but it does cover an important set of them.
After being used, toxic substances are recycled, used to generate electricity, injected into wells, stored, landfilled, emitted into the air, discharged into surface water, and spread over the land. They can be handled either on-site or off-site. Determining whether any of these activities represent a potential hazard to people, land, or water is complex. One cannot simply assume, for instance, that on-site means safe. On the other hand, one cannot assume that emission or discharge of the substance means that there is toxic exposure. The statistics in the TRI are only a starting point, and many factors must be taken into consideration when analyzing TRI data.
Current TRI fact sheets for Missouri cover the years 2002-2011. In the graph at right, the blue line shows total releases and disposal of toxic materials in Missouri over that time period. In 2007, EPA changed the minimum reporting threshold from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds, suggesting that comparisons between years may not be valid. Over the entire time period, toxic releases and disposal decreased by 4%. While there does not appear to be a significant discontinuity in the data following 2007, the data shows a rapid increase until 2005, followed by a rapid decrease. The percentage differences are very large: between 2002 and 2004 the increase was 56% From 2004-2011, the decrease was 38%. Such large , rapid changes may, indeed, reflect changes in data gathering rather than actual changes in the amount of toxic materials.
It might be possible to trace the data-gathering changes made by EPA and do and “apple-to-apples” comparison. Such a study would be welcome.
Because toxic materials are most frequently used in manufacturing, I thought that it might be interesting to compare toxics to the level of manufacturing. I cannot find a time series that shows the output of the manufacturing sector in Missouri from 2002-2011. I have found, however, a time series that tracks manufacturing employment. It is shown as the red line on the graph. Manufacturing employment in Missouri declined rather steadily between 2001 and 2011, by 24%. The shape of the red line is not a good fit to the shape of the blue line, however. While a decline in manufacturing may account for some of the decline in toxic materials between 2005 and 2011, it does not explain the increase between 2002 and 2005.
The second graph is taken from Factors to Consider When Using Toxics Release Inventory Data, published by the EPA. The graph shows total toxic releases and disposal for the United States (the columns) and the number of reporting facilities (the red line). The overall shape of the national data is similar to the Missouri data, except that the peak occurred 5 years earlier. The text underneath the graph explains various changes in the TRI data that are marked on the graph.
Information on the Bhopal disaster comes from various sources, including:
“Bhopal Disaster,” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1257131/Bhopal-disaster.
“Bhopal Disaster,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster.
Government of Madhya Pradesh Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, http://www.mp.gov.in/bgtrrdmp/relief.htm.
For United States toxic releases:
State Fact Sheet, TRI Explorer, for 2002-2011, http://iaspub.epa.gov/triexplorer/tri_factsheet_search.searchfactsheet.
Manufacturing Employment in Missouri, FRED Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?s[id]=MOMFGN
Factors to Consider When Using Toxics Release Inventory Data, EPA, 7/24/2012, http://www.epa.gov/tri/tridata/index.html.