Hazardous air quality throughout the United States is subjecting low-income and predominantly racial communities to at least double the acceptable cancer risk set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ProPublica reported in November 2021. Despite the life-threatening effects of air pollution, lax environmental regulations allow polluters to emit dangerous amounts of carcinogens without any repercussions.
ProPublica’s analysis, which used data processing software and modeling tools developed by the EPA, found over a “thousand hotspots of cancer-causing air” across the United States. Many of these are in southern states such as Texas and Louisiana, where environmental regulations are weak. Although EPA policy sets an acceptable cancer risk limit of 1 in 10,000, this number can still be dangerous, according to experts with whom ProPublica consulted. Moreover, the modeling computed that “256,000 people are being exposed to risks beyond this threshold and that an estimated 43,000 people are being subjected to at least triple this level of risk.”
Exposure to dangerous chemicals and gases emitted by manufacturing facilities, oil refineries, and chemical plants can cause numerous forms of cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancer. It is also linked to heart attacks, lung damage, and chronic asthma among a host of other ailments. Although smog makes some air pollution visible, ProPublica’s analysis determined that the greatest contributor to industrial cancer risk is ethylene oxide, a “colorless, odorless gas that lingers in the air for months” and can alter one’s DNA. A high school in Port Neches, Texas, is located near three facilities that spew several toxic chemicals. In such communities, the “estimated excess risk of cancer ranges from three to six times the level that the EPA considers acceptable,” ProPublica reported.
Many residents live in areas with air pollution that exceed the EPA’s upper limit for cancer risk because of poor environmental regulations and monitoring by the EPA. One flawed environmental regulation ProPublica cited is the 1990 Clean Air Act, which requires the EPA and companies to install equipment that reduces pollution and to study their emissions and health risks. Residents’ exposure is vastly underestimated because the EPA only reviews facilities and their equipment in isolation, ignoring a community’s combined exposure to other polluters in close proximity. Consequently, residents in these areas remain “chronically uninformed” about threats to their health. Wayne Davis, an environmental scientist formerly with the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told ProPublica, “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.”
Moreover, communities become riddled with carcinogenic pollution because environmental policy does not require the EPA to penalize polluters. The absence of sufficient regulation turns neighborhoods into toxic air hotspots, or “sacrifice zones,” Jane Williams with California Communities Against Toxics told ProPublica. Without proper oversight, industries come to “rely on having these sinks—these sacrifice zones—for polluting,” Ana Baptista, an environmental policy professor at The New School, explained.
Air pollution does not come without racial disparities. ProPublica found that, on average, census tracts where the majority of residents are people of color are subjected to about forty percent more carcinogenic air pollution than majority white resident tracts. Furthermore, predominantly Black census tracts have an estimated cancer risk from air pollution that is more than double that of majority white tracts. According to the Guardian, these racial disparities exist in all states, not only the southern United States, citing a peer-reviewed scientific study published in the December 2021 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. This study corroborated testimony from Black and Brown residents of polluted neighborhoods in California and elsewhere. Iretha Warmsley, a clean air ambassador for her neighborhood in south Los Angeles, told the Guardian that large factories are not the only polluters. Cities allow small businesses such as dry cleaners or autobody shops to open with little regard for the pollution they cause. Neighborhoods wedged between freeways also breathe disproportionately polluted air.
Corporate media have provided limited coverage of air pollution’s effect on minority communities. A Vox article from April 2020 reported that air pollution can be a contributing factor to disproportionate COVID-19 mortality rates in non-white populations, citing a study released by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A year later, CNN’s article, “People of Color Are Three Times as Likely to Live in Most Polluted Places,” emphasized air pollution caused by climate change. The New York Times summarized a study published in a 2021 issue of Science Advances on EPA data from 5000 emission sources in the U.S. gathered for a 2014 emissions survey. The study accounted for emissions from industrial sources, power plants, construction, automobiles, agriculture, and residences, and found, as the Times reported, that Black people were “exposed to higher- than-average concentrations from all major emission groups, while white people were exposed to lower-than-average-concentrations from all categories.” The Times’ and CNN’s coverage, however, lacked the depth of information ProPublica’s story provided. For instance, neither the Times’s report nor CNN’s noted the EPA’s lack of responsibility or the flawed legislation that allows polluters to convert communities into toxic air hotspots.
Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw, Lisa Song, and Maya Miller, “Poison in the Air,” ProPublica, November 2, 2021.
Erin McCormick, “How Much Air Pollution Do You Live With? It May Depend on Your Skin Color,” The Guardian, December 15, 2021.
Student Researchers: Sebastian Galvan and Athalia Galvan (Loyola Marymount University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kyra Pearson (Loyola Marymount University)