It’s any parent’s worst nightmare: racing their child to the hospital because they can’t breathe. Twenty-five million Americans have asthma — and it’s the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children under 15. The nightmare scenario is an ever-increasing reality as the rates of asthma continue to rise, exacerbated by air pollution.
A report today released by the United Church of Christ identifies the nation’s “Toxic 100” super polluters, naming the factories and facilities responsible for nearly half the toxic air emissions in hundreds of neighborhoods across 28 states. Alongside the report, Breath to the People: Sacred Air and Toxic Pollution, the UCC provides an interactive map, because they believe parents have the right know where these polluters operate. Like toxic water, toxic air is irreversibly harming children across our nation.
That a religious denomination, the UCC, finds itself in the position of needing to monitor our nation’s growing toxic air problem and its impact on the most vulnerable communities, speaks to the state of environmental justice in our country. The current administration has quietly sought to roll back 95 environmental protections, and the protections that remain are losing teeth as enforcement drops to an all-time low.
We believe the air we breathe is sacred. What we have here is not just a pollution problem or a regulatory problem — it is a moral problem. Our government is putting our children at the heart of a health experiment with lifelong consequences, and children who already suffer from multiple injustices bear the brunt.
Young children are at greatest risk because they breathe at higher rates and take more toxic air into their developing lungs and bodies. Asthma is the leading chronic disease among children, and African American children suffer at the highest rate. Breathing in lead and chromium are particularly dangerous because they can lead to long-term brain damage. Small bodies are being subjected to hundreds of different carcinogens, bio-accumulative toxins, and other hazardous chemicals.
None of this information is hidden from regulators. Our report was researched by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan watchdog committed to fair enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, which culled this data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own database that tracks self-reported air releases from over 15,500 facilities. We focused on the top 100.
We found that 1.6 million people live within three miles of the Toxic 100 — and nearly 113,000 of them are children under 5. An estimated 169,000 people live within just a mile of these facilities, with 11,500 of these being children under 5. It should come with great shame and little surprise that 98 of the Toxic 100 are within a mile of potentially vulnerable populations where lives are already defined by jeopardies and injustices: 65 facilities are within a mile of a low-income area; 56 have a higher percentage of people under age 5 than the state average; 51 have a higher percentage of people of color or Hispanic or Latino; 43 had a higher percentage of people over age 64.
Twenty-six of the Toxic 100 were in violation of the Clean Air Act in 2018, according to our review of the EPA Enforcement and Compliance History online database. Nearly a quarter of toxic emissions by the Toxic 100 plants came from leaks, according to company reports. These leaking pollutants are more likely to be inhaled at high concentrations by people living immediately downwind or just beyond a facility’s property line.
The Houston metropolitan area is home to 10 of the Toxic 100. A total of 410 facilities in the metro region account for 6 percent of the toxic emissions reported nationally. Air polluters also line Louisiana’s “cancer alley” — a stretch of industrial toxicity from Baton Rouge to New Orleans — and home to 11 of the Toxic 100. The industrialized southeast coast of Lake Erie in Ohio/Pennsylvania is home to 185 facilities, and four of those are among the Toxic 100. One of them is just 3 miles from our UCC national office in Cleveland.
And how has the federal government responded? By dramatically rolling back oversight.
As we witness the rapid expansion of the chemical industry due in part to low the price of natural gas, super polluters are allowed to operate increasingly unchecked when all signs tell us that we should be increasing vigilance. Since the establishment of the EPA 50 years ago, our nation has not witnessed an assault on environmental protections of this scale by any administration. The overall picture is one of institutional dismantlement and destruction.
But there are solutions.
- Our elected leaders must put an end to reducing in environmental protections — or they should no longer be our elected leaders.
- Targeted environmental enforcement by federal and state authorities needs to prioritize emissions reduction in the facilities that release the most toxic pollution.
- Companies that process carcinogens in particular should be required to install fence line monitoring.
- Facilities need to detect and fix their leaks.
- Communities must be the top priority where new construction or facility expansion is under consideration.
These are not grandiose ambitions; they are reasonable expectations. We believe everyone has the right to know who their toxic neighbors are. And we mean that literally.