It seems like every couple of days now, the good folks at ProPublica publish something that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and bangs your head against the wall, saying, “Read this, idiot.” On Tuesday, using intensive research and a mapping technology developed by the EPA, the site published an elaborately detailed map of the areas of the country worst victimized by industrial air pollution, and by the cancer and other diseases that inevitably accompany it. You will be shocked, I know, to learn that many, if not most, of the real hotspots in this regard are located in poorer minority neighborhoods around the country.
At the map’s intimate scale, it’s possible to see up close how a massive chemical plant near a high school in Port Neches, Texas, laces the air with benzene, an aromatic gas that can cause leukemia. Or how a manufacturing facility in New Castle, Delaware, for years blanketed a day care playground with ethylene oxide, a highly toxic chemical that can lead to lymphoma and breast cancer. Our analysis found that ethylene oxide is the biggest contributor to excess industrial cancer risk from air pollutants nationwide. Corporations across the United States, but especially in Texas and Louisiana, manufacture the colorless, odorless gas, which lingers in the air for months and is highly mutagenic, meaning it can alter DNA.
In all, ProPublica identified more than a thousand hot spots of cancer-causing air. They are not equally distributed across the country. A quarter of the 20 hot spots with the highest levels of excess risk are in Texas, and almost all of them are in Southern states known for having weaker environmental regulations. Census tracts where the majority of residents are people of color experience about 40% more cancer-causing industrial air pollution on average than tracts where the residents are mostly white. In predominantly Black census tracts, the estimated cancer risk from toxic air pollution is more than double that of majority-white tracts.
Another triumph for the unregulated “business-friendly” environment that so many Southern politicians brag about. Another triumph for what has been called for years “environmental racism,” which is probably illegal to discuss in the business-friendly environment in Texas. People who argue that the country can’t do “big things” anymore always leave out the more important requirement that the country has to want to do big things. But big things require rearranging our lives, and believing in nuanced analysis, and trusting people who know what they’re talking about, and there isn’t sufficient political advantage to be gained in any of that. Especially since the people most directly affected by the noxious air are having their votes suppressed anyway. All of it is of one piece, and it has been for years.
The Clean Air Act rarely requires industry or the EPA to monitor for air toxics, leaving residents near these plants chronically uninformed about what they’re breathing in. And when companies report their emissions to the EPA, they’re allowed to estimate them using flawed formulas and monitoring methods.
“These fence line communities are sacrifice zones,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Before there was climate denial, there was cancer denial. We release millions of pounds of carcinogens into our air, water and food and act mystified when people start getting sick.”
The 21st century continues to be the most overhyped production of the 1950s imagination.
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