Houston is the petrochemical epicenter of the United States, possibly the world. Yet we have no idea what chemicals the people who live near the industrial tangle of pipelines, train tracks, refineries and chemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel have to breathe in every day, according to new research from the Houston Advanced Research Center.
For years, people have said that Houston, one of the most heavily polluted cities in the United States, is also one of the cities with the heaviest monitoring of air quality in the country. Between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, local governments and private industry, there are supposed to be more than 140 different kinds of air pollution monitors measuring the amounts of different chemicals wafting through the air all over the city, according to a recent study. (Private companies are allowed to self-report their emissions levels.)
In fact, it's claimed that Houston has more air pollution monitors than any other city in the United States and possibly the world, according to one study published in January 2015. But despite what industry and government officials say, we know very little about what's being emitted in the neighborhoods around refineries, according to Jay Olaguer, the program director for air quality science at HARC.
Last year, Olaguer worked with a team of researchers from colleges and universities across the country to conduct a field study on the effects and sources of air pollution in neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel, including Galena Park, Manchester and Harrisburg. Their goal was to figure out how bad air pollution really was in the neighborhoods near the Ship Channel and to better pinpoint the source of those emissions.
They worked out of three vans in February 2015, running tests and gathering data. By the time they were done, Olaguer says, researchers could better pinpoint the levels of pollution in those neighborhoods pressed up against Houston's petrochemical complex along the Ship Channel.
HARC researchers weren't exactly shocked to discover benzene emissions in the area. The researchers, part of a HARC project called the Benzene and other Toxics Exposure Study (BEE-TEX for short), found significant amounts of benzene coming from the rail lines, the refineries and the Houston Ship Channel, which was what they'd expected.
But researchers also discovered something new: that pipelines crisscrossing beneath the neighborhoods toting crude oil and natural gas were also sporadically belching large amounts of benzene into the air, as we've previously reported. These unpredictable emissions were releasing the carcinogen into the air at levels that were much higher than the levels recorded in the same areas in the 2011 National Emissions Inventory, the Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution inventory system that is built using data collected from state and local agencies.
The BEE-TEX researchers also used real human tissue to test out how lung cells responded after being exposed to the air near the ship channel. (University of North Carolina scientists cultivated the lung cells from cancerous human lung cells, and Olaguer snapped up the opportunity to use this new technology in his study.) After four hours of being left out in the air in Manchester near Valero's Houston refinery, the lung cells showed signs of inflammation and asthmatic symptoms from the air pollution.
The researchers also found that they were getting more accurate readings of air pollution in the neighborhoods by using vans and collecting the data in real time. State and local government air-quality monitoring stations are designed to stay in one place, so they won't necessarily catch everything being released into the air. But being able to move around made it easier to track any sudden changes in emissions, like a huge release of benzene, and measure how those releases sent the current air pollution levels in a specific area through the roof. The stationary monitoring equipment is unlikely to catch things like that, Olaguer says.
Based on this research, Olaguer wants to change the air-quality monitoring systems to more accurately measure the pollution levels in areas near the Ship Channel where people live. It's something that could completely change the way we monitor air pollution in fence-line neighborhoods, he says.
"With this new approach, though, you're really getting into what's happening in real time," he says. "This way, we don't have to wait years and years to figure out what's going on. If we could change the system, do much more immediate analysis and modeling right away in areas prone to this stuff, it could change the whole game entirely.”
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