Where you live may be hazardous to your health: Two reports show “place matters”

Where you live may be hazardous to your health. This is the conclusion of several recent reports and studies, among them a supplement to the most recent examination of health disparities by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and an analysis by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Reform of those who live in communities most vulnerable to hazardous chemical exposures. Together the two paint a disturbing picture of how the neighborhoods in which Americans live and work play a significant role in determining their residents' health. There should be no doubt about the prevalence of the health threat. As the environmental justice report, Who’s In Danger, details, more than 40 percent of the US population lives near a facility with the potential for a dangerous chemical or other hazardous material release. The daily roster of chemical accidents presented on the Chemical Safety Board website, shows just how prevalent these incidents are.

Who’s in Danger zeros in on the demographics of those who live closest to what the report calls “vulnerability zones” of “entire industry sectors that manufacture chemicals, treat water or wastewater, produce bleach, generate electric power, refine petroleum, produce pulp and paper, or otherwise have 100,000 or more people living in the path of a potential worse-case chemical release.” In an analysis of 3,433 such facilities nationwide that use or store extremely hazardous chemicals, the report found that the majority of residents in these areas are Black and Latino. It also found that the poverty rate in these communities is 50% higher than for the US as a whole and average home values in these neighborhood are 33% below the national average.

Add to this picture what appears in the CDC’s health disparities report: “The socioeconomic conditions of the places where people live and work have an even more substantial influence on health than personal socioeconomic position.” We thus have what appears to be a recipe with the potential for both acute and chronic or long-term health problems. While Who’s In Danger focuses on the potential for catastrophic incidents involving extremely hazardous chemicals, the CDC takes a somewhat longer view, looking – for the first time in such a CDC health disparities report – at nonfatal work-related injuries and illnesses and work-related fatalities, as well as residential proximity to major highways, asthma attacks and access to healthier food retailers among other factors. Based on these an other factors, the CDC found that those living in the US Southeast have a “much lower life expectancy” than those living elsewhere in the country.

The CDC also found that a higher percentage of low-wage workers were employed in high-risk occupations. More of those doing high-risk work are employed in the South and Midwest than in the West. Of the six high-risk occupations in which more than 1 million US workers were employed, there was a higher proportion of Black workers. In four of these occupations, the proportion of workers earning low wages was greater than the national average. Surprisingly, these occupations are not chemical plant or refinery workers, construction workers or heavy equipment operators but health aides, janitors and cleaners, maids and housekeepers and what the CDC calls “hand laborers,” people who move freight, stock and other materials.

A look at the map of facilities analyzed in Who’s In Danger, also shows significant clusters in the Southeast and Midwest. The report, said Robert Bullard, Dean at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University on a May 1st call with reporters, documents “that race and place are interrelated” and that “communities of color and low income are disproportionately at risk.” Bullard also noted that people with the “least amount of resources,” are also those living in greatest proximity to danger. And while many of the facilities analyzed by Who’s In Danger do not employ those living in their fence-line communities, the CDC report suggests that many residents of these same communities may coincidentally be employed in high-risk – and low-wage – occupations that potentially put them at greater risk for adverse work-related health events.

While Who’s In Danger primarily highlights large-scale facilities, the CDC report reminds us that workplace hazards also exist in less industrial circumstances. At the same time, the chemical accidents occurring on a virtually daily basis as recorded by the Chemical Safety Board, remind us how many Americans live in close proximity to the potential for such disasters. When chemical releases occur, the incidents may grab local headlines. They don’t, however, typically  make the national news. Learning about them is hard without poring through a source like the CSB’s website crawl to realize how commonplace these disasters are. In the past week alone there have been at least a dozen.

These include an unidentified chemical spill at a California Central Valley cheese plant that sent four workers to the hospital; an ammonia leak at a Wisconsin ethanol plant that resulted in one worker being hospitalized; a fire and explosions at a New Mexico biofuels plant that caused an evacuation order for a half-mile around the plant due to risks posed by methanol, hydrochloric acid and other hazardous materials on site; an anhydrous ammonia spill at an Iowa grain storage facility that caused a fish kill along a two-miles in an adjacent creek; a mining chemical spill in Kentucky that also caused a fish kill, and an ammonia hydroxide spill that occurred when construction work cut a pipe at an Intel plant in Chandler, Arizona sending 10 workers to the plants medical station and two to the hospital for observation.

As the CDC report notes,  those at greatest risk are also the groups of people suffering disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and higher rates of infant mortality. California’s EnviroScreen data is beginning to show similar patterns: that place and environmental health hazards are closely related and that locations with the highest hazard – greater exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), diesel particulates, pesticides, contaminated groundwater and hazardous waste sites among other pollution sources – disproportionately impact the state’s Latino and Black residents. Using this and comparable data, in addition to documenting adult health effects, scientists have drawn links between pollutant exposures and low birth weight among other adverse impacts on children’s health.

Yudith Nieto who works with the NGO, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, described in the May 1st press call accompanying the release of Who’s in Danger, her experience growing up in the community of Manchester, Texas, what she called the “toxic east end of Houston” near the ship channel. Her family and neighbors were constantly beset by industrial sounds and smells without knowing anything about them. “I grew up with asthma,” said Nieto. “We don’t know what’s in the air or why the alarms are sounding,” said Nieto. “There’s no transparency between industry and community,” she said. That lack of information, she said,  feeds a “constant fear” – stress that is itself a health hazard.

At the heart of solutions the authors of Who’s in Danger recommend is a fundamental public health concept: the right-to-know. The current situation would improve, they note, with the use of safer chemicals and technologies to eliminate hazards, and by enabling workers and residents to exercise their “right to know about both the dangers and alternatives.” Access to this information can be used to prevent disastrous incidents, to push for safer technologies and, ultimately, to make both workplaces and the communities safer.


Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesEnsia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 




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