DECATUR - Laurel Kroack learned her risk for long-term health effects from industrial air pollution is 31 times greater near her house than in other neighborhoods.
It's ironic for someone who oversees air pollution controls for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The state air bureau chief, a 14-year Decatur resident, said she is not concerned about her long-term health risks based on her address.
"I have no plans to move," she said.
She responded to a December report by The Associated Press. Decatur popped up on a national list of neighborhoods with the most unhealthy air quality because of industrial pollution, according to an AP analysis of 2000 federal data.
The Illinois EPA, however, said the data used in the analysis was meant for another purpose and could cause undue concern among the public. Different reports track hundreds of pollutants that affect air quality.
When comparing communities or health risks, the agency issued caution.
The news service reported it analyzed emission reports from industrial plants to calculate health risk scores for long-term exposure to air pollution, and then compared scores among census tracts nationwide.
Three Decatur neighborhoods near industrial parks were identified as high-risk areas. They also made the top 20 of the riskiest 280 Illinois communities, according to AP.
Macon County also appeared in an Illinois EPA list in the September 2005 Toxic Chemical Report, which does not reveal to what degree the public is exposed to the various chemicals. Overall, Macon County ranked fifth for reported toxic releases in 2003 with more than 6 million pounds, compared to the 35 million pounds reported by the top county of Peoria.
Posted throughout the report is a warning from the Illinois EPA: The annual data has limitations.
The toxic chemical release data is self-reported, largely inaccurate and potentially overstated, Kroack said. Inaccuracies may occur, for instance, because companies use different methods to estimate releases and because production processes change.
The report still has value because is can reveal whether the amount, type or fate of toxic releases is appropriate, she said. Currently, all local companies are reported as operating in compliance.
Kroack said AP's analysis also might overestimate the long-term health risks because it only looks at industrial emissions. Another major source of pollution associated with long-term cancer risk is mobile source emissions, such as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons from vehicle exhaust.
"Mobile source emissions are just as risky," she said. "Decatur might be ranked as more risky for industrial sources, but it certainly wouldn't be ranked in the most risky for mobile sources."
Other pollutants affecting the community's health include ozone and particulate matter, measured in a separate air quality report that has shown consecutive years of improvement throughout the state, including Decatur since a leaf burning ban took effect.
"When you look at those criteria matter, Decatur continues to improve each year," Kroack said.
Of course, air pollution can still affect Decatur residents' health.
More than a dozen companies report releasing toxic chemicals into the air between central Decatur and the northeast corner bordering Illinois 121. The top chemical released in Macon County is Hexane, which is used to extract edible oils from seeds and vegetables, according to the EPA. Hexane is also used as a clean-ing agent in the printing industry. If a person inhaled high levels of the chemical, he or she could feel dizzy, giddy, nauseated or have a headache. Long-term exposure could cause numbness, muscular weakness, blurred vision or fatigue. Cancer risk, however, is unknown for humans and animals.
"Toxic compounds, particularly metals, are more likely to have impacts on cancer risks," Kroack said. "That's not saying they translate to cancer, but they're more likely to present an increased risk of cancer."
Yet, it's unknown whether residents living near industrial areas have greater long-term health risks because they have more exposure to emissions, said Decatur allergist, Dr. Howard Beede.
"I don't have any reliable statistical evaluation of that," he said. "One would think that would be reason-able."
Sensitivity to air quality could increase after the first of October each year, when molds and dust are prevalent in the atmosphere from agricultural harvesting as well as from industrial processing, he said.
The effect depends on individual health.
"If they're really sensitive, then they respond to lower levels of an antigen, as opposed to people who are not as sensitive who do not respond," Beede said. "The problem is anybody can develop, potentially, an allergy to a variety of different chemicals."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.