August 30, 2005
Toxic 100 Uses Enhanced Toxics Release Inventory Data to List Top Corporate Polluters
by William Baue
The Toxic 100 aggregates facility-level TRI data to compute company-wide toxic emissions
The amount of toxic chemicals released into the air is inversely related to the release of
information on toxic emissions to the public--in other words, the more available information on
toxic emissions is, the less toxic emissions occur. This formula underpins the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory
(TRI), created by the passage of the
Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA).
Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the
University of Massachusetts is adding another
element to this formula to increase the relevance of TRI data as a means of promoting further
reductions in toxic emissions. PERI took facility-level TRI data from 2000 (the most recent
information available) and aggregated it by company to create the Toxic 100, a list of the largest
corporate emitters of toxics in the US. Of companies in the Fortune 500, Forbes 500, and S&P 500, the top five Toxic 100 companies are GE (ticker: GE), Georgia-Pacific
Boeing (BA), and
US Steel (X).
"The Toxic 100 informs consumers and shareholders which US corporations release the most
toxic pollutants into our air," says Jim Boyce, director of PERI's environment program. "We measure
not just how many pounds of pollutants are released, but which are the most toxic and how many
people are at risk."
What inspired PERI to create the Toxic 100 was the EPA's
Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) project, which seeks to increase the relevance
of TRI data by overcoming three of TRI's limitations. First, TRI reports raw data in pounds, as if
all chemicals have the same degree of toxicity. Not so--one pound of asbestos is equivalent to 27
million pounds the chemical chlorodifluoromethane (HCFC-22), in terms of toxicity. RSEI therefore
formulates a "toxicity weight" for each chemical to express its relative toxicity per pound, and
multiplies it by each pound emitted to arrive at a more accurate calculation of the relative
hazards of different toxic chemicals.
Second, TRI data do not take meteorology or
geography into account, so RSEI examines local wind patterns, temperature, and topography as well
as smokestack height and exit velocity of emitted gases to determine release concentrations within
10,000 square kilometers of each facility.
Third, TRI data do not take demographics into
account, despite the fact that emissions occurring upwind from densely populated urban centers have
a much different human impact from emissions into less populous rural regions--so RSEI adds census
counts into the equation.
If TRI demonstrates the power of transparency and disclosure
to promote change, RSEI enhances this power by extending TRI's comprehensiveness.
some good evidence--there have been several academic articles about it--that the mere release of
the TRI data prompts corporations and facilities to reduce their emissions because they didn't want
the bad publicity--this effect is sometimes called 'informal regulation,'" Prof. Boyce told
SocialFunds.com. "You don't necessarily need the government to regulate--once sunlight is shone on
the problem, that can be enough to induce changes in behavior on the part of corporations."
"The TRI is considered the crown jewel of the right-to-know movement, but if you build upon
that database in the way EPA has done with RSEI, and that we have built upon a little more by
aggregating, you have a much richer and more relevant set of information about what and where the
hazards really are," states Prof. Boyce. "With this enhanced data out in the public, relative
performance will be judged, promoting voluntary initiatives by corporations to reduce their RSEI
scores just as they seek to reduce their TRI scores--the sum effect is to reduce human health
hazards even more."
RSEI not only complements and enhances TRI, but also sometimes
supplants TRI. To illustrate this point, Prof. Boyce poses the example of a company faced with a
decision between two chemicals, one more toxic and one less toxic.
"If all a company is
concerned about is minimizing pounds, as TRI encourages, they may use the more toxic substance
because it lowers overall poundage," explains Prof. Boyce.
RSEI, on the other hand,
factors in toxicity to encourage companies to use less toxic options. This distinction carries
important implications for socially responsible investment (SRI) advocates.
"If one of the
interests of the SRI community in environmental performance is concern about potential future
liabilities associated with emissions of toxins, then RSEI and the Toxic 100 are clearly much more
useful information than just how many pounds of toxins altogether a plant releases," Prof. Boyce
PERI intends to update the Toxic 100 list based on 2002 TRI data recently released
by the EPA. In addition, PERI intends to aggregate TRI and RSEI data not just for the top 500
"As a way to get started, we decided we would limit our aggregating to the biggest
500 corporations in the US, but we now hope to aggregate RSEI data for all TRI-reporting
facilities," Prof. Boyce says.