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Exposing Big Polluters

A new application based on Google Maps reveals what toxins are pouring out of the innocuous-looking factory next door.
November 28, 2007

I’ve spent just a little too much of my afternoon investigating the smokestacks outside my office with a fun new tool called MapEcos, produced by a few local business schools. It’s yet another application based on Google Maps. But this tool, rather than telling me the location of the nearest pizza place or giving me an update on the weather, is letting me know just how much lead the power plant next door is spewing out.

It’s about 100 pounds of lead a year. About a mile and a half away from the office is another set of smokestacks that I just learned emit about 30,000 pounds of formaldehyde and 150,000 pounds of ammonia annually. A chemical plant within a mile of my apartment emits 4,000 pounds of vinyl acetate and more than 1,000 pounds of N,N-Dimethylformamide.

This is all publicly available information. I just hadn’t bothered looking it up, in part because I had no idea what some of these places were called–or that the chemical plant near my apartment even existed. MapEcos takes EPA data and links it to specific locations, providing color-coded markers that make it easier to pick out the worst offenders. Click on a location, and it will tell you what the place is called, what it emits, and how it compares with other businesses in the county, state, and country. You can search the site by location, industry, hazard level, and so on.

If you have the patience to click through a few links and wade through convoluted government websites, you can also discover what the chemicals being emitted are, and what they might do to you. After reading a few toxicological profiles saying that there is “no conclusive information” and “no child studies,” I think it’s clear that we could use a bit more research. We have an idea how much of certain chemicals are being emitted. We just don’t really know what it’s doing to us. And the problem could be getting worse as new chemicals and materials, including nanomaterials, are being invented.

The tool is a great idea–a useful way to make public what industry is up to and get a general idea of how polluted a neighborhood might be. But it would be nice if the next version offers a few improvements. First, easier access to health data would be useful, as would a better sense of how to translate the hazard-level information into actual health risks. A colleague wondered whether the 100 pounds of lead emitted next door could pose a serious health risk, especially for expectant mothers. With the data available, it’s hard to tell.

And it would also be good to tie in other factors besides site-specific pollution data. What is the impact of local traffic on pollution? What is the effect of the weather on air quality? Where do local emissions actually end up? Maybe the most dangerous location is not next door to a plant, but a half-mile downstream. Ultimately, it would be great to have a map like this tied to a network of air, water, and soil sensors–perhaps something like what we write about here.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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