Air Toxics and Heart Disease in the South Coast Air Basin
By: Angela Johnson Meszaros, General Counsel

This month, we focus on two things: 1) a report released by PSR-LA and three partner organizations that analyzed the kinds and amounts of chemicals being used in Los Angeles and Orange Counties to extract oil; and 2) a new report from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that helps explain how particulate matter in the air causes cardiovascular disease. Both pieces help us better understand air quality in the Los Angeles region, how air pollution can and does impact health, and gives important insight into the kinds of policies that should be developed to protect health.

The Air Toxics One Year Report found that 45 million pounds of air toxics were used in the past year to drill and to “stimulate” oil wells in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. While many chemicals were used, the analysis focused on toxic air contaminants – chemicals that are known to have significant negative health impacts. For example, we found that more than 5 million pounds of hydrofluoric acid (“HF”) had been used in wells over the past year. This air toxic is commonly used in “acidizing” and well maintenance to help dissolve materials inside a well or underground shale formation, and has acute, chronic, mutagenic, and developmental effects when inhaled. Much is known about this chemical’s hazards because of its use in refineries, including several in the Los Angeles area (read more about that here). Importantly, it is heavier than air and can form clouds near to the ground and travel for miles if released.

The likelihood of exposure to hydrofluoric acid – and the 43 other air toxics used – is further highlighted by the finding that more than half of the wells receiving these chemicals were within 1,500 feet of a home, school, or hospital. You can read more about the importance of this report for local residents in last week’s blog post. The report’s release was also covered by KPCC’s Molly Peterson, and featured on Take Two.

Another study of note released this month is “Chronic PM2.5 exposure and inflammation: Determining sensitive subgroups in mid-life women”, which sheds light on the association between particulate matter and cardiovascular disease. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, is significant not only because it identifies a plausible explanation for how chronic exposures to PM2.5 causes cardiovascular mortality, but also because it identifies population subgroups that are particularly susceptible to the effects of PM2.5 exposure. Low-income residents were identified, among other subgroups, as especially vulnerable.

Here in the South Coast Air Basin–which includes all of Orange County, and the urban areas of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties–we have among the highest levels of PM2.5 in the country. According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the highest levels in Los Angeles County can be found in the City of Compton, a city working hard to be a great place to live, work, and do business; and clearly making great strides towards that ideal. Compton is also a city with a reported median household income $18,000 less than the California median and a per capita income of $12,023. From a social determinants of health perspective, Compton is exactly the kind of place where a lot of people are particularly susceptible to the effects of PM2.5. And indeed, a report released by the County of Los Angeles (Mortality in Los Angeles County 2009: Leading Causes of Death and Premature Death with Trends for 2000-2009) identified coronary heart disease as the second leading cause of premature death for people living in Service Planning Area 6, with rates far in excess of the Los Angeles County rate. Compton is one of eight communities located in SPA 6.

Death rates for selected causes of death, by service planning area (SPA) of residence. County of Los Angeles, Mortality in Los Angeles County 2009: Leading Causes of Death and Premature Death with Trends for 2000-2009, Figure 13

Death rates for selected causes of death, by service planning area (SPA) of residence. County of Los Angeles, Mortality in Los Angeles County 2009: Leading Causes of Death and Premature Death with Trends for 2000-2009, Figure 13

This study highlights, again, the critical need to address outdoor air pollution when considering protections for health. The study also points out the importance of having physicians, nurses, and other allied health professionals weigh in on the public policy decisions being made about how and why to address air pollution – and the costs associated with our failure to do so.

Here are a few links to resources you may find helpful to treat exposure to hydrofluoric acid. PSR-LA is providing these links for your convenience and makes no warranties about the content of the materials and urge you to undertake your own research before acting in reliance upon these materials.