hey wow, chech this out!!!it works-oren

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Finding Polluters Close to Home/Information on toxics just a click away

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Finding Polluters Close to Home
Information on toxics just a click away

Alex Barnum, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Tuesday, April 21, 1998

Do you know what companies are the biggest polluters in your neighborhood, what chemicals they emit into the air or water, and what are the health effects of those chemicals?

Environmental ``right-to-know'' laws, passed at the state and national levels over a decade ago, in theory make the information available to anyone.

In practice, however, the bureaucracy for dispensing the information is so cumbersome that only the most dogged environmental activist could get at it.

Until now.

A Web site launched last week by a national environmental group puts the information just a few mouse-clicks away, bringing the power of the Internet to environmental activism.

The Web site -- www.scorecard.org -- combines more than 150 government and university databases to allow users to locate polluters in their community, research the dangers of a common household product or compile sophisticated pollution rankings.

The site was developed at a cost of $1 million by the Oakland office of the Environmental Defense Fund, which had more than a dozen staff scientists, attorneys and consultants working on it during the past year.

``It's a giant step toward making the facts about local pollution -- and the uncertainties -- as easy to get as a local weather report,'' said Fred Krupp, the group's executive director.

And if the first few days of the Web site's operation are any indication, the idea could be almost as popular. The site received 1.3 million hits on its first day, causing a temporary meltdown of its server.

The number of hits is partly because of heavy advertising of the site on ABCNews.com, Yahoo and America Online. EDF officials expect viewership to settle down at about 500,000 hits a day.

The organization is spending so much to develop and market the site because it has the potential to empower citizens and become a force for corporate accountability, EDF officials said.

Some 17,000 facilities nationwide are covered by the law requiring industries to report the type and amount of chemicals that their plants emit into the air, water and landfills. Information from those facilities goes into a database known as the Toxic Release Inventory, which is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency.

TRI is accessible through the EPA's own Web site (www.epa.gov) and another site known as Right-to-Know Net (www.rtk.net). But the information is harder to explore and is used mostly by environmental activists, journalists, industry groups and government regulators.

EDF's Web site aims to make the information less intimidating to the average Internet user.

``All you need to know is your ZIP code,'' said William Pease, a staff toxicologist who hatched the idea for the Web site. The site contains information on some 2,000 U.S. counties and 5,000 ZIP codes.

You can also call up the same information using a map of the United States and zooming in on detailed street maps of your neighborhood.

In addition, users can create sophisticated rankings. With a few clicks of the mouse, for example, you can find that the nation's most frequently emitted carcinogen is dichloromethane, a common industrial solvent.

Another ranking shows that San Francisco County is 30th on a list of 58 California counties with the highest air emissions of chemicals that cause cancer. Such rankings used to take weeks to generate.

``We never could have created as many reports as this thing generates automatically,'' Pease said.

Another feature is one that EDF officials hope will turn even the most desk- bound Web-surfer into an environmental activist.

Users can click on a form letter that automatically sends a free fax to a company's plant manager, saying the user is aware of the amount of pollution being put out and requesting that the levels be reduced.

EDF knows from its past work that public disclosure can be tool for reducing pollution.

For example, air emissions of known reproductive toxins have declined 45 percent since 1988 -- not because of new laws but because polluting facilities responded to pressures from a more-informed public, said EDF senior attorney David Roe.

``Information is a very powerful tool,'' he said. ``It seems to make things happen much more quickly than mandatory regulations.''

Industry, which a decade ago fought the law that created the Toxic Release Inventory, continues to criticize the law, saying the information is often taken out of context and sensationalized by environmental groups.

In response to that criticism, EDF has developed a system for ranking the risks of the more than 650 chemicals that are included in the Toxic Release Inventory.

The ranking system was developed by Pease, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Public Health, and was published in scientific journals.

Pease says he hopes the Web site will transform the environmental field in the same way that information technology has transformed other fields, such as biology, where computers are being used to decipher the human genome.

``We're really the first example'' of combining sophisticated computer searches with environmental activism, Pease said.

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