WASHINGTON, Aug 21 (Reuters) - The United States has made progress in reducing dangerous air pollution since 1990 but work remains to reduce risks for the country's most overburdened urban areas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's top official said on Thursday.
The EPA released to Congress its second report on integrated air toxics, citing "substantial progress" toward reducing levels of contaminants such as arsenic, mercury and lead since it launched an Integrated Urban Air Toxics Strategy in 1999.
Air toxics, also known as toxic air pollutants or hazardous air pollutants, are pollutants that may increase the risk of cancer or other serious health effects, such as birth defects.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy pointed to milestones such as a 60 percent reduction in mercury from coal-fired power plants and an 84 percent cut in lead levels in outdoor air among the agency's accomplishments.
But she told reporters that more work needs to be done to understand air toxics better and reduce remaining risks, which are most prevalent in low-income urban areas.
"There is more that we have to do and more that we can do," McCarthy said on a conference call.
The report she cited highlighted six areas where the current EPA air toxics program must improve, including emissions data; ambient data in more areas covering more pollutants; better monitoring technologies; and research on health impacts of air toxics.
McCarthy said the agency is focused on addressing environmental justice by recognizing that some of the most economically disadvantaged communities are most at risk of the negative health effects of air pollution.
The agency will complete studies of air toxic pollution in the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia and North Birmingham, Alabama, to get better data that can help inform local decision making.
"Environmental justice is the core of EPA's mission - striving for clean water and healthy air for every American," McCarthy said.
For the complete 139-page EPA report, see: http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/082114-urban-air-toxics-report-congress.pdf
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny and Dan Grebler)