Air Pollution in Anchorage
Alaska has surprisingly high levels of toxic air pollutants given our small population and large land base.
Ambient benzene levels in Anchorage have exceeded minimum risk levels established by the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Alaska's crude oil and refined gasoline both contain high levels of cancer-causing benzene. Alaska is not required to sell less toxic reformulated gasoline because we do not violate national ozone standards.
Alaska's diesel has been more toxic than diesel sold in the rest of the nation, largely because the state was exempt from federal standards in the 1990’s that reduced sulfur levels in the fuel. Higher sulfur levels raise production of toxic soots at the tailpipe that are associated with increased cancer, upper respiratory disease, asthma and even death.
Even something as common as dust causes health problems, especially very fine dust from such sources as tires pulverizing road gravel. Published research in 1996 by Dr. Mary Ellen Gordian of Anchorage showed increased asthma and upper respiratory diseases as dust levels rise. Researchers could not find a bottom threshold of dust levels below which particle pollutants are healthy to breathe.
Clean air advocates fear that the particle monitoring system under-represents dust pollution. Monitors at Anchorage's dustiest site were removed and not replaced. There are other dusty locations, especially along roads, that are not monitored.
Similarly, the same study found a correlation between upper respiratory infections and bronchitis and combustion particles. State officials are just beginning to study these combustion particles, but they are likely to include soots from diesel and wood smoke, aerosols from gasoline engines and pollutants from home heating systems. Federal standards are not strict enough to protect health, and regulators are considering tightening the health standards for particles.
In a more recent study, Dr. Gordian found that
local school children living within 3 blocks of busy roads are
two and a half times more likely to have asthma than children
living farther away from traffic. Furthermore, schools with
lower income families are more likely to have more asthmatic
children. The study controlled for typical factors including
smoking in the home and asthma diagnosis of parents.
Particles also obscure visibility. Anchorage's nearby mountains are commonly obscured by road dust in dry months and combustion particles in winter.
In one success story, carbon monoxide levels
are down significantly from the early 1980s. This is probably
due to a combination of pollution control strategies and warmer,
windier weather. In 1998, a screening study found that one neighborhood
exceeded national health standards by twenty percent while the
fixed monitoring system registered levels within national standards.
Since then, that neighborhood has measured carbon monoxide levels
within the national standards.
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