At a refinery in Houston, Texas, the petrochemical industry pumps large amounts of carcinogenic compounds into the air, increasing the risk of developing cancer. (Photo: Louis Vest, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)
Millions of Americans breathe toxic air pollution, often unknowingly, from industrial facilities. The nonprofit research newsroom ProPublica has created an interactive map that highlights the EPA’s failure to account for the cumulative cancer risk of Americans who live near multiple industrial facilities. Lisa Song, climate and energy reporter for ProPublica, discusses the team’s findings with host Bobby Bascombe.
CURWOOD: From PRX and Jennifer and Ted Stanley’s studio at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, this is an encore version of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
BASCOMB: Bobby Bascomb.
In some areas located near industrial areas, air pollution far exceeds levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency. These air pollutants include carcinogens such as benzene, ethylene oxide, and heavy metals such as chromium, cobalt, and nickel. And so far, if you want to know about the extra cancer risks you may face from living near these sources, you’re out of luck. With the first-of-its-kind map and data analysis, ProPublica has provided new insights into how multiple sources of industrial carcinogens lead to increased local cancer risk. Lisa Song is a climate and energy reporter for ProPublica and part of the team that put together the analysis. She is also a former Living on Earth intern and now joins me from New York City. Welcome to Living on Earth, Lisa!
Song: Thank you for coming.
BASCOMB: So what’s new in this mapping tool? What are you trying to show here?
Song: What we’re trying to show is the cumulative risk of industrial cancer from the main sources of toxic air pollution. This is important because the way EPA normally assesses occupational cancer risk, he does it for one type of facility at a time. And with so many people living near several different industrial facilities at once, we often underestimate the estimated cancer risk.
BASCOMB: So when you visit ProPublica’s site, how can you, as a user, use this information you’ve put together?
Song: Bring this data together into a searchable map. Enter your home or work address to zoom in on exact locations and see additional cancer risks estimated from these locations at a very local level. Large industrial facilities in your area. And if you live in a place where there are no facilities nearby, the closest facility will tell you whether it’s 6 miles away, 10 miles away, or whatever the number is. You can also include the name of a town or city. And it gives you something like an overview of the city as a whole. The population of this area is approximately this. The maximum estimated cancer risk in this region is x and the mean is y. .
BASCOMB: Just to be clear, this is EPA data and it goes into your database.
Song: Yes, the raw data from now on comes from the EPA. And what they’ve been doing for years is taking the annual data that the industry reports to the EPA, and it’s about the pounds of benzene or the pounds of chromium that are emitted into the atmosphere each year. runs its own atmospheric model on these emissions, modeling where they go, where they go geographically, and their concentration at map locations. Therefore, all of this raw data has been owned by EPA for many years. What ProPublica has done is to analyze it and put it together in a way that is searchable, easy to use, and actionable for the general public.
BASCOMB: So you’ve identified more than 1,000 hotspots nationwide of industrial sources of carcinogenic air pollution. where are they generally?
Song: Most of these hotspots are in the southern states. The hotspot at the top of the map is a place known as Cancer Alley in part of Louisiana. And the other top hotspots are one near Houston and one in Orange, Texas.
BASCOMB: This is the same area they’re looking to expand into. We have covered several stories about ethane crackers in the past on our show and are looking to set up a new ethane cracking facility in the same area where people are already improving their health.Risks associated with the industry. The EPA knows it, and it seems these are just kind of sacrificial zones.
Song: Well, that’s the term we and others have used to describe these areas. And it’s important to remember that this is simply how our regulatory system was set up. The way EPA assesses risk is by breaking it down, for example, if you live near two refineries, you look at both refineries for risk together. But if you live next to a refinery and a chemical plant, EPA is not going to study the total risk from both of these facilities. This is because they are considered two different types of facilities. As such, that oversight is built into the way the EPA currently regulates. And when we spoke with EPA officials, they said the Biden administration plans to look into this and possibly take a new approach. . So, so far, we haven’t seen that concrete action yet.
BASCOMB: Now let’s talk about one of the people you mentioned in your article. Tell me about Brittany Madison.
Song: Okay. Brittany lives in Baytown, near Houston, with her family. And they live next door to so many different industrial facilities. Brittany’s apartment is therefore within 30 miles of her from more than 170 facilities that emit toxic fumes. And we looked at her three facilities, which accounted for most of her block’s risk. These facilities include the ExxonMobil refinery and two of her other large facilities. Therefore, looking at the risk for each of these facilities individually, the risk is relatively low. So a refinery, for example, increases her estimated risk of her block getting cancer by 1 in her 730,000. And, you know, her other two facilities are in 1/100th of her range. [thousand] or 200,000. However, adding the total risk for all three facilities and all other facilities in the area jumps the estimated additional cancer risk by a factor of 46,000. So you can see how quickly these combined risks add up. When we spoke with Brittany, she said that her 3-year-old niece still has asthma and needs treatment for asthma, especially after a work accident at a refinery, and that she and her family suffered from headaches, migraines and other ailments. 2-3 years ago. She has her family who died of cancer and her family who worked in the industrial sector. And one of her things to keep in mind about Maps in our report is that it’s very difficult to prove that a particular person’s cancer was caused by a particular type of contamination. . However, we do know that these air pollution risks exacerbate overall cancer risk.
BASCOMB: I think you said that when you add up all these risks, her risk of cancer is 1 in 46,000. If there is a concern, what is the EPA’s threshold, i.e. at what point will any intervention occur?
Song: So the EPA’s main general threshold for cancer risk is 1 in 10,000. However, we are not using 1 in 10,000 as an absolute cutoff point. At the same time, the EPA actually has an ambitious goal of reducing the number of Americans exposed to industrial risk to less than one in her million. Indeed, at his one-in-a-million standard, where Madison lives, the risk of cancer is much higher than his one-in-a-million goal. However, this is less than 1 in 10,000, which the EPA normally considers the upper limit.
BASCOMB: I also think they’re looking deeper into the US population as a whole to see where they fit on the cancer risk spectrum. what did you find there?
SONG: As far as the EPA’s hope criteria go, we found that 74 million Americans live in locations with an estimated risk greater than one in a million. That’s one-fifth of the US population. If you look at places with a higher risk than the 1 in 10,000 that the EPA commonly uses as the upper limit, about 250,000 people live in those places. There are places like Cancer Alley, not only in certain parts of Texas, but in other states as well. There are many small pockets of hotspots in places where residents don’t even know they live there.
Bascom: And Brittany Madison is African-American, and we know that communities of color tend to carry more of the burden of pollution than communities that are predominantly white. To what extent were you able to quantify risk for the Black community using
Song: Well, our national analysis shows that census tracts with mostly people of color experience about 40% more pollution than census tracts with mostly white residents. And in a predominantly black census block, she is exposed to more than twice as many contaminants as a predominantly white census block. It therefore confirms decades of research that has shown how pollution is segregated and concentrated in communities of color.
BASCOMB: You know, how do you hope the public will use this tool you came up with?
Song: First of all, I think I just want the general public to find their own homes, find friends’ and family’s homes, and see if they live in areas that are hotspots. . If so, are you actually publishing a guide for hotspot residents and what kinds of things have other hotspot community groups been doing historically? I hope it helps to give some context to the results and alleviate your specific anxiety. The guide also explains that Cancer Alley’s highly organized community conducts regular air monitoring campaigns and more. They were looking for funding to conduct their own air monitoring. Some communities are working with their facilities to take initiatives such as notifying all communities when an unexpected incident occurs at their facility. Some people have bought air filters to use in their homes to make indoor air a little safer, while others in the community have worked with lawyers to file lawsuits. I mean, there’s really a lot that these types of communities have done historically. And we hope our guides help inform and perhaps empower those who find themselves in a hotspot for the first time.
BASCOMB: Lisa Song is a climate and energy reporter for ProPublica. Lisa, thank you for this wonderful tool and for chatting with me today.
Song: Thank you.
BASCOMB: We contacted EPA to ask about potential plans to change how we assess cumulative risk from industrial exposures.
EPA has made important and We are working to make urgent progress. To view the full EPA statement, please visit Living on Earth’s website, LOE dot org.
pro publica | | “Poisons in the Air”
pro publica | | “EPA Administrator visited cancer-causing air pollution hotspots highlighted by ProPublica and promised reforms”
EPA | | “Complete EPA Statement on Addressing Cumulative Cancer Risk”