More than 1,000 communities in the United States are hotspots for toxic air pollution that can cause cancer, according to an extensive new analysis from ProPublica. Over a quarter-million people are living in places with a level of cancer risk higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency says is acceptable, and 74 million Americans have a higher level of risk than what the EPA says it “strives to protect” people from.
ProPublica used an EPA modeling tool to map how carcinogen-laced air spreads from chemical plants across the country. Most areas where people have the highest exposure to that air are in Southern states with weaker environmental regulations, and a quarter of the top 20 hotspots are in Texas. Predominantly Black areas in the US also have more than double the cancer risk of white areas — a finding that affirms years of research showing that communities of color face disproportionate exposure to air pollution. This disparity is tied to racist real estate and zoning practices, which have historically put facilities that emit pollutants in neighborhoods where people of color live.
The top three hotspots of dangerous air in the country are in Port Arthur, Texas, on the Louisiana border, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and parts of the Houston area. Brittany Madison, who lives near an ExxonMobil refinery outside of Houston, has a three-year-old niece with severe asthma and family members who died of cancer. There are over 170 facilities emitting toxic chemicals within around 30 miles of her apartment, ProPublica found. Madison told ProPublica she wonders how many of the health problems in her community are because of the air her friends and family breathe.
The ProPublica investigation underscored weaknesses in how the EPA regulates air pollution. While the agency strictly regulates “criteria” air pollutants like particulate matter, it doesn’t set limits on emissions of over 180 so-called hazardous air pollutants. And instead of tracking the cumulative emissions of dangerous chemicals in each area, it looks at pollution like refineries and shipyards one by one — an approach that underestimates the extent to which people living around multiple chemical plants are exposed to toxic air.
“The public is going to learn that EPA allows a hell of a lot of pollution to occur that the public does not think is occurring,” Wayne Davis, an environmental scientist who used to work at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told ProPublica.
The Trump administration weakened air pollution protections, causing efforts to improve air quality to backslide. For many communities, growing heat exposure and wildfire risk due to climate change could further amplify the damage. Reducing the use of fossil fuels, a key goal of the U.N. climate talks currently underway in Glasgow, could drive improvements in air quality. But even as President Joe Biden urges countries to cut back, he’s asking oil producers to increase production in the face of rising gas prices.
The EPA told ProPublica that it was working “to better understand risks for communities who are overburdened by numerous sources of multiple pollutants.” Nicolaas Bouwes, a former senior analyst at the EPA, said the agency has had the data to find the same pollution hotspots ProPublica identified for years. But there hasn’t been the funding or interest to tackle the problem.
Go read the full story here.