Just seeing the word sets off an internal alarm. And once you learn that the latest Environmental Protection Agency figures rank Tennessee number two in the nation in recognized toxic air releases, the ringing may get a little louder.

Alarm is a natural reaction, say environmentalists. So do environmental managers of local companies releasing such toxic chemicals as styrene, lead compounds, ethyl acrylate, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, toluene, and many other ominous elements.

Knox County's 714,419 pounds of toxic air releases for 1996 are nothing compared to Hamblen County, where Lenzing Fibers Corporation alone released 18,448,320 pounds of toxic chemicals. Chattanooga distances us as well, with about 3,000,000 pounds of toxic chemical releases in Hamilton County.

Our numbers aren't that bad, depending on which side of the toxic fence you're on. Some people say these toxic releases pose a health risk. Others say our problem is minor at worst, nonexistent at best.

Right To Know

SARA started it all. With the Superfund Amendment Reauthorization Act of 1986, Congress let the right-to-know genie out of the bottle. Manufacturers that meet certain criteria are required to calculate and make public the amounts and kinds of toxic chemicals they release. This is done through an EPA instrument called the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The 1996 figures just came out and are accessible via Knoxville's Lawson McGhee Library and at least these three Web sites: www.epa.gov/ opptintr/tri, www.rtk.net, www. scorecard.org

Any chemical on the list has been shown to be toxic. TRI includes land, water, and air releases of toxins, recycling, off-site transfers, and total production-related toxic wastes. EPA notes that TRI numbers are not sufficient to calculate adverse health effects. So what the numbers mean is debatable. They can easily be misinterpreted and are not meant to be an indicator of a company's total environmental posture.

John Nolt, a local environmentalist and associate professor of philosophy at UT, says that TRI information isn't being used locally to apply pressure on industries releasing toxic chemicals. "Usually we don't have dose response data, meaning you breathe this much of something to be dangerous. To get that, you need a fairly large population exposed over time with good health-risk assessments of levels of exposure. That's very expensive," says Nolt, who covered toxic releases in his 1997 book What Have We Done?, the Foundation For Global Sustainability's report on the bioregion. "But there is anecdotal evidence that people in this area are getting sick and dying from toxic releases."

At Sea Ray Boats in the Forks of the River Industrial Park, director of environmental management Kevin Thompson has recently received a few faxes from people responding to the Environmental Defense Fund's Web site option of sending toxic releasers an instant fax (the "scorecard" Web site above). He's drafting a standard response, and has already called one Knoxvillian with a reply. "TRI is raw data, and it will be misinterpreted," says Thompson, echoing the sentiments of others interviewed for this article. "I can see why the numbers would be alarming when you look at the emissions from facilities the size of ours. It's better for people to have the whole story, and TRI is not the whole story."

Thompson agrees that the lack of detailed health-risk assessments means that some people may have concern about health effects. But he is confident that Sea Ray is not putting anyone in the community at risk. "We've had no complaints in Tennessee as far as I know about odors or health problems," says Thompson.

At Sea Ray there's a joke about the future of production going back to wooden boats if forced to eliminate emissions of toxic styrene, which results from their open-mold fiberglass methods. However, Thompson assures that they take toxic releases seriously. Sea Ray's three East Tennessee facilities, one the campus-like headquarters with adjacent plant where Thompson works, employs 1,200 people.

Styrene is the major element that puts Sea Ray on the top of the Knox County toxic release list, with 402,000 pounds going into the air from the two plants in the industrial park. Styrene is a principle constituent of polyester resin, which together with woven glass makes fiberglass. It is also the same stuff in Styrofoam cups and a bunch of other materials.

"There are other monomers that will work in unsaturated polyester resins, but because they are not as widely used, we really don't know anything about them from a health standpoint and a fate-in-environment standpoint," says Thompson. "Styrene has been studied extensively." He grabs one of many environmental books from a floor-to-ceiling shelf to look up styrene's half-life: about nine hours in the air before it is destroyed. "Epidemiology on more than 50,000 workers exposed to styrene shows no link to long-term health effects," he says.

Walk in the plant right next door to his office and you're heavily greeted by styrene's sweet and sour smell, which has a slight pungent nip. Scores of workers make fiberglass boat hulls, with one person at each mold flow-coating the styrene-containing resin from a shower head-looking nozzle. Ventilators hum everywhere, moving some of the styrene from the working environment into the outside air.

Inside, the odor of styrene still rules. It is listed as a carcinogen on one regulatory list but not EPA's or OSHA's (EPA is currently reviewing styrene's toxicity).

The Devil is in the Details

Alan Jones, executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council based in Nashville, has been into air pollution issues for 20 years and knows the state of toxic releases in Tennessee. "Until fairly recently, the state's position was, so what, we have toxic substances going into the environment," says Jones.

The Tennessee Air Initiative (see sidebar) was a major step for Tennessee, a surprising one given its history of nonchalance, says Jones. Still, he's concerned it may not live up to its full promise of protecting health. He sees references to the use of a screening method for evaluation of toxic effect that he feels may not be reliable. "We want the state to look at how much of a toxic substance is in the air for the nearest resident and what is the hazard associated with exposure to that substance. With such health-risk assessment, the devil is in the details," says Jones.

Justin Wilson, deputy to the governor for policy, defers to the state Air Pollution Control Board. "The board will make those decisions. I can't say how that may come about. But it will be science-based," says Wilson, who pushed for the initiative as part of Gov. Sundquist's commitment to cleaner air. "To some extent the Tennessee Air Initiative is heading toward discovery in the toxic question of health-risk assessment. I can't say it will cover all the problems."

Before such problems can be dealt with effectively, you first must know how toxic a chemical is. One of the places in the forefront of such data-crunching work is on Henley Street at the University of Tennessee's Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies. Gary Davis, the Center's executive director, is a chemical engineer and a lawyer who used to sue polluters. Now he and a staff of eight engineers and scientists work with them on designing products to have a low-impact environmental life-cycle. Part of that work is the Chemical Hazard Evaluation For Management Strategies, which evaluates how toxic a chemical is to a person and the environment (this is not the same as health-risk assessments from toxins as released by industry). This information is used by EPA and by the Environmental Defense Fund on its TRI-targeting Web site.

Davis is soft-spoken and comfortable with caution. For example, he says he'll have to punt on identifying which toxic releases in Knoxville present a health risk because he isn't familiar with local figures. He will say that of the original 300 chemicals on the TRI list, the center evaluated about 170 that accounted for 99 percent of toxic releases in the country. "Now there are 600 on the TRI list, most researched to some degree. But of the thousands of chemicals in commerce," says Davis, "only a small fraction have adequate toxicological data."

The center's evaluation work is on the cutting edge, says Davis, in part due to factoring chemical potency and determining where toxic chemicals end up in the environment. Asked if toxic releases are harming people in Knox County, Davis pauses, warns that he is going to be equivocal, and is. "There are toxic releases in this country that are putting people at risk, a higher risk than they should be subjected to. I come from the precautionary principle, whereby you always take the greatest precaution when you know the least. That's not the way we have dealt with chemicals in this country."

The center is particularly concerned about cancer-causing chemicals and the ones that cause subtle effects because they occur with low concentrations of the chemicals in the environment. Toxic chemicals with reproductive effects may damage the developing fetus, cause spontaneous abortions, and reduce male and female fertility. Some toxins affect the nervous system, may reduce IQ, and cause learning disabilities. Some toxics affect the immune system in similar ways as the HIV virus.

"Now," says Davis, "there is concern about toxic chemicals that mimic estrogen in the human body and can throw off the reproductive system that way." Tennessee is number one in the country in the release of reproductive toxins.

Davis says some businesses see the handwriting on the wall—the prospect of people suing them for harm coming from toxic releases. "Also, businesses are recognizing that toxic releases don't have a role in creating a sustainable environment. Companies that will be winners 20 years from now are working on non-toxic options today."

The Dose Makes the Poison

On one of Rohm & Haas' storage tanks, which often release toxic chemicals into the air, is a bug-eyed, bushy white-haired man in a lab coat. This science guy, visible from the expressway that connects Alcoa Highway with I-40, is poking with a pointer at a Rohm & Haas logo bigger than him, saying, "That's Good Chemistry." Stacy Nixon, inside the administrative offices sketching the Rohm & Haas operations on a display board in flow-chart fashion, shares no resemblance to the little man on the storage tank. As assistant manager for safety, health, and environment for the Knoxville plant of this chemical-processing giant, she's done this flow chart before for people with complaints about odors Rohm & Haas emits from its Fort Sanders location. (Since the cessation of Plexiglas production, odors have gone down significantly. The strong smell that most likely gets your attention these days is ethyl acrylate, a toxic substance with an odor threshold of one-half-part per billion.) The Tennessee Tech grad and former state environmental regulatory agent is earnest and patient in her simplifying explanations.

Some of Rohm & Haas' 43,575 pounds of toxic releases into the air in 1995, she explains, came from "working losses," chemical vapors pushed out a storage tank when new chemicals are added. "Displacement losses" occur in the production of polymers used in paints, detergents, textiles, and coated paper. "Breathing losses" come from natural cooling and heating of storage tanks.

"Most of our processes are vented to an incinerator, which destroys toxins," says Nixon. "In other processes, condensers or scrubbers remove toxic chemicals before being released to the atmosphere." The plant carries out several leak detection and spill-prevention safeguards.

She is confident that the toxic emissions that escape present no health risk to the public. "Based on the models we run and analysis we do, they do not pose a health risk. We run a dispersion model that predicts the concentration of the chemical in the air. Our corporate standards set guidelines for concentrations that would not be harmful to the public," says Nixon.

When asked how chemicals that are known to be toxic and even carcinogens when they come into the plant can be harmless when emitted from it, she gives an answer that is the linchpin of the toxic release issue. "Have you ever heard the phrase 'the dose makes the poison'?" asks Nixon, her eyes narrowing slightly behind her glasses as she makes this point. "Regarding toxicity, you must also take concentration into account. You can't relate pounds of straight toxin to its concentration as released in the air. Our releases take place over a year's time in concentrations we show are not harmful."

Rohm & Haas, she says, goes beyond regulations to be a good neighbor. A 10-year-old advisory committee of community members lets R&H know what's on their minds. "They've brought up toxic releases, and we've talked to them about measures we've taken," says Nixon. "They ask pretty tough questions sometimes."

Though comprehensive health-risk assessments have not been conducted, she believes that any such future studies would not reveal health risks from R&H toxic air releases (which her records show went up by about 10,000 pounds from 1995). Can she be absolutely sure of no possible ill effects—the answer people want to hear? "I can't answer that," says Nixon, speaking of potential studies yet to be done. "I can't predict the future."

Some community groups in California have used TRI data to negotiate agreements with companies to reduce their toxic emissions. At least one of them was recently in Knoxville for a conference co-sponsored by UT's Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies and the Toxic Use Reduction Institute of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. How to use TRI data was on the agenda.

"The TRI has been one of the most effective environmental regulations we've had in the last 20 years," says Davis. "It really empowers communities to have that information."

Daniele Droitsch, board member of Knoxville's Foundation For Global Sustainability, says the organization hasn't done much directly with TRI but not because of a lack of concern. "Tennessee does have enormous toxic releases," says Droitsch. "There just haven't been enough health-risk assessments done on them. For example, DDT used to be readily used, but we learned we were poisoning ourselves. It's very possible—probable—that we are using toxic chemicals today that we don't have enough information on to know whether they are safe or not. But environmental groups can only do so much."

The Knox County Air Pollution Control Office uses a computer screening model that predicts if an off-site concentration of a toxic release might pose a substantial risk, says engineer William Schaad. But detailed health-risk assessments are not done by that office, which is responsible for issuing permits for facilities that release EPA-regulated hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).

"There aren't too many health-based emissions limitations as far as the HAPs are concerned," says Schaad. "But it will be a different era when the EPA residuals come into play, because they will have to base that on a significant amount of scientific data. I don't think we will find that there have been significant health hazards in the past. I think it is more probable that we will not find a smoking gun."

Sonny Crews, environmental specialist for AmeriSteel in Knoxville, is confident in the existing studies done on the toxic metal compounds his plant releases. "Sometimes you have to take EPA's and the scientific community's word. They are going on the best data available. It could change tomorrow."

Turning old refrigerators, junk cars, and dead lawnmowers into 330,000 tons of recycled steel annually, AmeriSteel might be the biggest recycler in town and probably the oldest, having started in 1860 at what is now the World's Fair Site and from their current location since 1904. Lonsdale grew up around AmeriSteel, and drawings from students at Lonsdale Elementary School, which the company helps support, decorate the lobby. Crews is proud that the company recycles 99.9 percent of what comes through its yard.

Most of AmeriSteel's toxic releases come from the residues that aren't part of the construction rebar they manufacture. Essentially, after melting down scrap, a dust remains that is filtered and stored in a "bag house" (think giant vacuum cleaner).

"One of the proactive things we've done to reduce our toxic releases was constructing a state-of-the-art bag house in 1995," says Crews. "We have steel recyclers from all over the U.S. and from other countries come to see it. It's one of the most advanced in the world."

Regional human resources manager Greg Motes says the new bag house was a $5 million expenditure that had nothing to do with regulations and everything to do with AmeriSteel wanting to be as clean an operation as possible. In fact, the new bag house cut AmeriSteel's total toxic air releases in half, from 111,811 pounds in 1995 to 55,267 for 1997, a number that won't be released by EPA until next summer.

"If you could put a bubble over this whole plant, you could catch everything," says Crews, who gives a look like he's seriously thought about it. "But you can't do that. Zero toxic emission is not possible."

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

"TRI is information only, but emissions are down more than 40 percent, and the main reason is that industry hates that spotlight of public scrutiny," says Jones with the Tennessee Environmental Council. People aren't using the leverage of TRI enough, he says, adding that TEC is willing to help Knoxvillians go to companies to negotiate reductions.

"The nature of the problem is that you do not know," says Nolt. "But that doesn't mean these toxic emissions are safe, that they haven't caused harm to people's health. In this country, a chemical is innocent until proven guilty," he says. "And while that might be good concept regarding people, it's a bad one regarding chemicals. What needs to be done in general is to increase public and political pressure to reduce toxic releases."

Gary Davis says that ultimately, toxic releases should be phased out. People can help do that, he advises, by first asking sources for reductions. If you're not satisfied with their response, then go to the state agency, then to your state legislators, then to Congress. "TRI focuses on only part of a company's overall environmental profile, but an important part. People don't need to be alarmed," says Davis, "they need to be aware."

Clark Brandon, assistant manager for general affairs at Matsushita Electronics in Forks of the River, says people do need to be aware of companies' environmental actions. Matsushita takes such concerns seriously, he says. For example, the company was one of the first in the U.S. to meet a stringent international-standards program for environmental management systems.

"Our TRI listing makes it sound like we have a big pile of something out back. That's not the case," says Brandon. Matsushita's main toxic release is toluene, which results when the solvent in the glue they use dries. It's not a public health risk, says Brandon; it's not even harmful to plant workers.

"But people see TRI numbers and think that a company is polluting for profit," says Brandon. "We knew we were in the top 10 of Knox County's TRI list [10,687 pounds of air releases]. It's been on the EPA Web site, but it has been added to other people's Web sites, people who have an agenda."

He thinks the toxic release issue is a nonstory. "If it is a story," says Brandon, "there needs to be something that says the sky is falling. If not, it needs to be revealed as a hoax."

Perhaps future detailed studies will prove that toxic chemicals released into the environment are innocent, and we can breathe easier. Or maybe, as in the case of tobacco, the scientific jury will discover devils in the details, and somebody could have hell to pay.