|A U.S. map showing 2017 data from the Toxics Release Inventory, which tracks information about nearly 600 chemicals in more than 30 chemical categories at some 22,000 facilities. Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Click to view interactive map.|
TipSheet: Use EPA TRI Database To Find Toxic Threats
Is an industrial plant emitting benzene in your neighborhood? How about methyl bromide? Chlorine? Diazinon? Phosgene?
Not sure? You should be, since more than a whiff of any such chemical can be extremely toxic. Fortunately, journalists (and the public) can use the latest edition of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database to look for such dangers.
EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, database comes out every year, and it has been the foundation of many a good news story. The latest iteration became available in March, and is available online, searchable or downloadable, if you want to explore it.
Why it matters
Toxic chemicals are pervasive in industrial processes — and in our air, water and land. In many places they do cause serious, even fatal, harm to human health. And you might be surprised at how lightly they are regulated.
In order to harm human health, toxics must be released into the environment. Fortunately, there are many efforts to keep this from happening.
And for people to be harmed by them, they must also be exposed to them. This, too, is prevented in many cases.
Harm results if people are exposed to a significant dose — one more thing that may not happen. Or it may.
That’s why your audience needs to know about toxic releases and whatever threats they may present. Some chemicals can be immediately lethal if people receive acute exposure to large amounts. Others can cause lethal diseases like cancer via chronic, long-term exposure to seemingly small amounts.
The back story
In 1984, a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, released large amounts of methyl isocyanate gas in the middle of the night. The gas flowed along the ground into towns built up around the plant and immediately killed thousands of people. Far more, among the hundreds of thousands of people, were injured, some of whom died later of this toxic exposure.
In the ensuing outrage, many declared that something needed to be done to prevent such releases. These calls reached the U.S. Congress. But the chemical industry and others were determined to prevent direct federal regulation of chemical plants.
Eventually a compromise of sorts was reached and enacted by Congress — not regulation, but information. The idea was regulation by information: if surrounding communities knew enough about chemicals made and used nearby, they might pressure companies to clean up their act and make things safer. That was the theory, anyway.
The law passed in 1986 was called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA. It relied on planning and disclosure, and one of its main features was the TRI. It took a while to implement, partly because of chemical industry resistance.
The first data did not go online until 1989. The internet as we know it today was just coming into use back then and the TRI was the basis of some of the earliest data journalism.
Today, the TRI tracks some 595 individual chemicals and 33 chemical categories at nearly 22,000 facilities. These are not just chemical plants. They include things like water treatment plants (chlorine) or food refrigeration plants (ammonia).
Remember that the data includes chemicals that are properly disposed of or recycled. But also remember they include toxic releases to air or water that are perfectly legal.
- Start by using the TRI to ask what major industrial facilities are near you, what important toxic chemicals they handle and what is the fate of those chemicals.
- Find out what business and residential areas are near those major facilities and ask whether the population at risk has special vulnerabilities. Are there nursery schools or nursing homes in the area?
- What are the demographics of areas at risk? Explore environmental justice implications with EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators tool.
- Does the facility have a state or EPA permit to release chemicals into the water or air?
- When you find a facility of interest to you, get its facility registry number and use that to look up permits, violations, etc., in other EPA databases such as ECHO or Envirofacts.
- The latest TRI, published in March 2019 for data collected in 2017, was announced here.
- The key search tool is called TRI Explorer. Find the interface here.
- An important contextual overview is the annual TRI National Analysis. Many other tools for viewing TRI data can be found on the main TRI page.
- Find local environmental health groups and ask them how they are using TRI to address local toxic pollution issues.
- For info about the toxicity of particular chemicals, you might start with EPA. But other sources include the National Toxicology Program, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ExToxNet and the National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET databases.
- For an industry perspective, try the American Chemistry Council.
- For the environmentalist viewpoint, try the Environmental Defense Fund or the Environmental Working Group.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.