Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are toxic to organisms, including humans. The state departments of Ecology (Ecology) and Health have released a Chemical Action Plan (CAP) that addresses uses and releases of PAHs in Washington.
PAHs usually occur as complex mixtures. They are found in natural substances like oil and coal. They are formed during incomplete burning of organic material such as coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, tobacco and meat. PAHs are released during such common activities as burning wood and driving cars.
PAHs are widespread in Washington’s environment. They are toxic to organisms, including humans, and they are found in people. Studies have linked PAHs to cancer, reproductive problems and weakened immune systems.
The CAP found the largest man-made sources of PAHs to the environment are from wood-burning stoves, creosote-treated wood, and vehicle emissions, including tire wear, improper motor oil disposal and leaks. For most individuals, the largest exposures to PAHs are from food and smoking, with a lesser contribution from air emissions.
Washington has current programs in place to address these areas of concern. In the CAP, the agencies recommend these programs can be enhanced to improve or speed up results; major new programs are not needed. Existing programs include removing creosote-treated pilings and education and outreach campaigns on wood burning, vehicle drips, engine idling, and smoking.
Important work is happening already to reduce and prevent the presence of PAHs in the environment. Ecology is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Puget Sound Partnership to carry out priorities in the Partnership’s Puget Sound Action Agenda – the single playbook for prioritizing and focusing recovery and protection efforts for government entities and scientists, environmental groups, and business and agricultural organizations across a 12-county region.
Ecology has funded projects through a competitive EPA grant to prevent, reduce and control toxic chemical and nutrient pollution to Puget Sound.
Ecology awarded the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency $334,000 to expand the wood stove replacement program in Pierce County. The project provides incentives for households to remove or replace high-polluting (uncertified) wood stoves, replacing them with cleaner wood-burning devices or non-wood heat sources.
Also, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) received a $500,000 grant from Ecology to remove creosote-treated pilings to reduce PAH and improve habitat in Hood Canal. DNR will remove hundreds of derelict pilings, including an abandoned train trestle in Quilcene Bay.
Along with recommendations concerning wood smoke and creosote-treated wood and other products, the PAH CAP includes proposals to address vehicles and human health.
Ecology’s Puget Sound Toxics Assessment is a multi-year, multi-agency effort to understand where toxic chemicals come from, how they get to Puget Sound and the potential harm they cause to people, fish and other creatures. It identified creosote-treated wood, wood smoke and vehicle exhaust as key sources of PAH contamination in the region. The assessment pointed to increasing efforts to remove creosote-treated wood from the water and shoreline as a priority action to reduce toxic threats to Puget Sound.
In 2006 Ecology adopted a rule to begin reducing or phasing out persistent, bioaccumulative toxic (PBTs) chemicals, a distinct group of chemicals that threaten the health of people and the environment. These types of chemicals are the “worst of the worst” because they:
- Remain in the environment for a long time without breaking down (persistent).
- Accumulate in the bodies of people and animals, moving up the food chain, increasing in concentration, lingering for generations (bioaccumulate).
- Have been linked to a wide range of toxic effects in fish, wildlife and humans, including on the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, immune suppression, and endocrine disruption.
The focus of Ecology’s PBT work is to prepare and carry out Chemical Action Plans (CAPs). Previous CAPs have been completed on mercury, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used as a flame retardant), and lead. A multi-year plan lays out a schedule for future CAPs. In October 2012, Ecology issued an amendment to the schedule to begin work on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as the next CAP.