For people worried about the quality of the air they breathe, there's always been the Toxic Release Inventory, a government database that shows how many pounds of pollutants individual factories, power plants and other facilities pump into the air and water each year.
Combing through the data, you could see what kinds of hazardous compounds assuming they are regulated each facility emits, how close to home the facility is and what other facilities nearby might contribute to the overall pollution load.
But there's a lot individuals couldn't see. How risky is each of those pollutants? Thousands of pounds of nitrogen might be emitted, but only a fraction of a gram of dioxin but unless you know how potent dioxin is, you wouldn't know which is more risky. And anyway, where does all the pollution pumped out of those smokestacks fall out? Is it right by the facility or miles away?
To answer those types of questions, the Environmental Protection Agency developed a different set of data to define the health risk from air pollution created by each facility. The Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators, though, is hard to access and interpret in its own right.
The Chicago Tribune has taken the EPA data and put an easily searchable database on its Web site. There are still some confusing numbers each facility has an RSEI "score" that will be meaningless to most people, except that a higher number means more risk. The Tribune has helpfully included a second number, so each facility can be ranked relative to the other 16,000+ facilities in the database.
Remember, the numbers don't describe absolute risk. They are for comparative purposes only. But if you see a facility nearby that is relatively risky, you can talk to the business, elected representatives, regulators and citizen groups about how to rein in the toxic stuff fouling your air.
The Tribune, for instance, found that Chicago has several of the nation's riskiest facilities, and all told has some of the nation's riskiest air pollution. You can bet the paper won't drop the story, and those facilities will face pressure to clean up.
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