Study shows vulnerable populations disproportionately burdened by 'super polluters'

January 29, 2016 by Melissa Andreychek

University of Maryland research that crosslinks toxic pollution to race and socio-economic status was published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters.

Focusing on the industrial facilities responsible for one billion chemical releases in the U.S. in 2007, an interdisciplinary team from the fields of environmental sociology and computational science have identified that a class of "super polluters"—the worst of the worst—contribute disproportionately to pollution affecting minority and low-income communities. The study's findings suggest that selective enforcement, rather than sweeping initiatives, could lead to the greatest environmental gains at potentially reduced costs.

The analysis is the first to cross-link releases of more than 600 chemicals by 16,000 facilities nationwide to the race and of the local communities. Mary Collins, an environmental sociologist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), lead the research while a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) of the University of Maryland.

In "linking 'toxic outliers' to environmental justice communities," Collins and her co-authors, Joseph JaJa, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland, and Ian Muñoz, formerly of SESYNC, reveal that high minority and low-income neighborhoods—areas that are already more likely to be contaminated by toxic industrial pollution than predominantly white and high income neighborhoods—are at exponentially elevated risk from super polluters. The industrial facilities in these areas generate disproportionately high amounts of pollution, and they are more likely than other facilities to be located near communities of color and low-income populations.

Collins and her collaborators say their research may help explain why these communities are perpetually more polluted than their predominantly white and affluent counterparts. One hypothesis is that these places may have limited political or economic power, so super polluters may be able to exist there without the attention they might receive elsewhere.

To estimate potential risk from reported toxic chemical releases, Collins and her colleagues went facility-by-facility using data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They found that fewer than 10 percent of the 16,000 industrial facilities studied generate more than 90 percent of human health risk to toxic emissions. Next, the researchers linked human health risk to demographics by mapping chemical releases with data from the U.S. Census. They found that high minority and low-income communities are impacted to a substantially greater degree by the worst-of-the-worst 10 percent of polluters.

"We break down the large problem of industrial pollution into its most harmful pieces to identify who is living near the most toxic polluters. This could be useful to policy and decision makers because targeted reforms may lead to the greatest environmental benefit at potentially reduced costs, while doing so in communities that need it most," Collins said.

"If you're non-white or poor, your community is more likely to be polluted by arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other dangerous toxins from industrial production," said Collins. "What's new and surprising is that industry's worst offenders seem to impact these communities to a greater extent than might already be expected."

One striking finding from the study is that this pattern holds across the country. "Only a small percentage of facilities are responsible for the great majority of environmental harm. And those facilities are sited in some of our most vulnerable high minority, low-income ," said Collins.

Explore further: Targeting minority, low-income neighborhoods for hazardous waste sites

More information: Mary B Collins et al. Linking 'toxic outliers' to environmental justice communities, Environmental Research Letters (2016). DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/1/015004

Related Stories

Language, immigrant status tied to toxic exposure

October 28, 2015

New research finds that economically disadvantaged immigrant neighborhoods of non-English speaking Latinos are more likely to be exposed to cancer-causing air toxics than comparable communities of any other racial group in ...

Study: Emissions trading doesn't cause pollution 'hot spots'

March 30, 2011

Programs that allow facilities to buy and sell emission allowances have been popular and effective since they were introduced in the U.S. two decades ago. But critics worry the approach can create heavily polluted "hot spots" ...

Australia's dirty secret: who's breathing toxic air?

April 16, 2014

Australians living in poorer communities, with lower employment and education levels, as well as communities with a high proportion of Indigenous people, are significantly more likely to be exposed to high levels of toxic ...

Recommended for you

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 29, 2016
Reading this article I was struck by how obvious the conclusion of this study was; that poor people are more likely to live around pollution producing industries? Well, duh. The richer you are, the farther away you want to live from a power plant or factory.

This reminds me of something my older sister told me back in high school when I inquired as to whether I should take sociology like her. She said, "It's the easiest course you will partner take because sociology is the study of things you already know". Amen

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.