Rachel's Democracy & Health News #848  [Printer-friendly version]
Thursday, March 30, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The poor and communities of color are exposed
to up to 10 times as much industrial pollution as their wealthier and
whiter counterparts. In Massachusetts, if you live in a community of
color, you are thirty times as likely to live in a highly polluted
community, compared to a white community.]

By Tim Montague

Our government agencies may not know the true full extent or impacts
of industrial pollution in the U.S. but they certainly recognize that
pollution disproportionately impacts the poor and communities of
color. As Carol Browner, former head of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) openly admits when speaking about air
pollution, "Poor communities, frequently communities of color --
suffer disproportionately." She goes on, "If you look at where our
industrialized facilities tend to be located, they're not in the upper
middle class neighborhoods." To the contrary, the EPA's little known
risk screening environmental indicators project -- reveals very
clearly that the poor and minorities are living with far more than
their fair share of toxic pollution.[1]

Using similar data in Massachusetts, Daniel Faber and Eric Krieg
recently published a detailed study of how working poor and minority
communities are disproportionately affected by industrial pollution
from landfills, hazardous waste sites, incinerators and factories.[2]

People are forced to live in polluted communities by their economic
circunstamces. In Massachusetts, more than 25 percent of all workers
are "the working poor" -- they earn less $8.84/hr or $18,387/yr
($18,400 was the federal poverty line for a family of four in 2003).
And over three quarters of these families spend more than one-third of
their income on housing. According to Faber and Krieg a family of four
has to make at least $64,656 in Boston ($6,000 more than in New York)
to "pay for basic necessities," and many families are forced by
economic necessity to live in the least desirable, most industrialized

For purposes of their study, Faber and Krieg define low- income
communities as having a median income of less than $39,524/yr. for a
family of four; and communities of color as those with more than 15%

They documented big disparities between rich and poor and between
white and minority communities. And they trace the root causes of this
disparity stem to the lack of political power.

"In order to bolster profits and competitiveness, industry typically
adopts pollution strategies which... offer the path of least political
resistance. The less political power a community possesses, the fewer
resources a community has to defend itself; the lower the level of
community awareness and mobilization against potential ecological
threats, the more likely they are to experience arduous environmental
and human health problems at the hands of business and government. As
a result, poorer towns and communities of color suffer an unequal
exposure to ecological hazards."[2, pg.1]

"The poor and communities of color face exposure to: (1) greater
concentrations of polluting industrial facilities and power plants;
(2) greater concentrations of hazardous waste sites and
disposal/treatment facilities, including landfills, incinerators, and
trash transfer stations; and (3) higher rates of "on the job" exposure
to toxic pollutants inside the factory."[2, pg. 1]


According to Faber and Krieg, Massachusetts has over 30,570 known
hazardous waste sites. If all towns were of equal area, the average
community would have 117 hazardous waste sites in it. But poor
communities have an average of 203 hazardous waste sites per town --
double the state average. Medium and high income towns average just 66
and 71 hazardous waste sites per town. Even the wealthy few are
poisoning themselves with hazardous waste, but poor communities are
three times more likely to have a hazardous waste site in their
community than the wealthiest communities. Low-income communities
have four times the density of hazardous waste sites compared to high-
income communities (19.2 vs. 4.6 sites per square mile).[2, pg. 2]

White communities (95% white) have an average of 39 hazardous waste
sites per town. But communities of color have a whopping 297 sites per
town -- 7.6 times that of white communities. And on a per-square-mile
basis, communities of color average twenty-three times as many
hazardous waste sites per square mile compared to predominantly white
communities (48.3 vs. 2.1 sites per square mile).


It's well known that landfills and incinerators pose many serious
health risks and that the people living near them suffer abnormal
rates of cancer[3, 4, 5, 6] birth defects[7, 8, 9, 10, 11], and low
birth weight[12, 13]. Landfills contaminate the local environment with
volatile organic compounds and heavy metals (see Rachel's #617).
Incinerators release cancer-causing and toxic chemicals from their
smoke stacks, including heavy metals, herbicide residues, polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins and furans (see Rachel's
#592). The leachate (garbage juice) produced by landfills is
extremely toxic. Brown and Donnelly at Texas A&M University studied
the leachate of 58 landfills and concluded that "...the leachate from
some municipal landfills may be similar to the carcinogenic potency of
the leachate from the Love Canal landfill."[14] Love Canal, of
course, was the notorious toxic waste dump that alerted the nation to
the dangers of toxic waste back in 1978.

Faber and Krieg found few differences in the number or density of
landfills across socioeconomic class but they found that communities
of color have nearly three times as many landfills per square mile as
white communities (.35 vs. .13 landfills/sq. mile). They say that
while "communities of color make up just 9.4 percent of all towns in
the study, they are home to 27.8 percent of all incinerator ash
landfills, 41 percent of all illegal sites [not defined], and 45.9
percent of all inactive municipal incinerators."[2, pg. 5]


According to data collected by the government of Massachusetts, from
1990-2002, industry in that state "released over 204.3 million pounds
of chemical waste directly into the environment... an amount
equivalent to over 2,550 tractor-trailer trucks each loaded with
80,000 pounds of toxic waste."[2, pg. 5]

Faber and Krieg explain that we're talking about nasty volatile
organic compounds like... "benzene, 1,3-butadiene, formaldehyde and
acrolein -- chemicals which are known to cause numerous adverse health
effects, including neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive
disorders and respiratory diseases..."[2, pg. 5]

If you live in a poor community you have an average of 9.9 industrial
polluters in your back yard, and your community absorbs an average of
1.6 million pounds of chemical wastes (107,034 pounds per square
mile). In contrast, if you live in a wealthy community you have just
2.2 major polluters in your community spewing an average of 246,428
pounds of chemicals (12,656 pounds per sq. mile). Clearly everyone in
the state of Massachusetts is getting dosed with toxic chemicals, but
the poor are getting 8.5 times the dose of their wealthy compatriots.
But Faber and Krieg don't stop there. They break down the exposure by

"Low income communities are also over-exposed to the most dangerous
families of chemical releases. Although they represent just 10.2
percent of all towns, low income communities received 23.7 percent of
all carcinogens; 30.8 percent of all organochlorines; 27.8 percent of
all persistent bioaccumulative toxins; and 45.8 percent of all
reproductive toxins."[2, pg. 6]

"Communities of color are also overburdened. High minority communities
(25% or more people of color) average 11.4 TURA [Toxic Use Reduction
Act] industrial facilities per town and 1.28 TURA facilities per
square mile, compared to an average of just 1.5 facilities and .08
facilities per square mile for low minority communities (less than 5%
people of color).[2, pg. 6] (TURA is a Massachusetts law.)

We see that poor and minority communities are exposed to greater
volumes of industrial chemicals, nastier chemicals and chemical
combinations. If you're poor, you receive twice the burden of
carcinogens, three times the burden of bioaccumulative toxins and four
times the burden of reproductive toxins. And if you live in a
community of color, you have "...ten times as many pounds of chemical
releases per square mile."[2, pg. 15]

The report details similar injustices around exposure to coal and oil-
burning power plants, "Although communities of color comprise just 9.4
percent of all communities in the state, they are home to 29.6 percent
of all active power plants."[2, pg. 8] and "...while low and medium-
low income communities comprise 47.9 percent of all towns, they are
home to 66.7 percent of all power plants and 73.6 percent of all
releases of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic
compounds. In contrast, the wealthiest populations (with median income
of at least $65,876) comprise 23.8 percent of all communities but are
home to only one power plant, and 0.2 percent of these emissions."[2,
pg. 16]


Faber and Krieg tallied up all the various toxic exposures for each of
the 250 cities and towns (and 12 neighborhoods of Boston) in the
entire state of Massachusetts and divided them by the land area of
each community. The resulting 'exposure index' is an estimate of how
contaminated each community is and takes into account different types
of exposure -- recycling centers are more hazardous than closed
landfills, which are more hazardous than small industry.

Not surprisingly, poor communities and communities of color scored
much higher (more toxic) than wealthy and white communities. These
communities averaged 35.3 points while the wealthiest communities
averaged just 8.5 points. Communities of color averaged 87.7 points
compared to just 4.3 points for white communities. So its four
times as dangerous to be poor and twenty times as dangerous to live in
a community of color.

Faber and Krieg sum it up this way, "...if you live in a white
community, then you have a 1.8 percent chance of living in the most
environmentally hazardous communities in the state... However, if you
live in a community of color, then there is a 70.6 percent chance that
you live in one of the most hazardous towns. In short, if you live
in a community of color, you are thirty-nine times more likely to live
in one of the most environmentally hazardous communities in
Massachusetts."[emphasis added; 2, pg. 10]

The authors continue, "The conclusion to be drawn from this analysis
is that the communities most heavily burdened with environmentally
hazardous industrial facilities and sites are overwhelmingly low
income towns and/or communities of color. Clearly, not all
Massachusetts residents are polluted equally -- working class families
and people of color are disproportionately impacted. Governmental
action is urgently required to address these disparities." [2, pg. 10]

[1] http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=

[2] Daniel Faber and Eric Krieg, Unequal Exposure to Ecological
Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts. Northeastern University, October 2005. Available

[3] State of New York Department of Health INVESTIGATION OF CANCER
CONDITIONS, NEW YORK STATE, 1980-1989 (Atlanta, GA: Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry, June, 1998).

[4] M.S. Goldberg and others, "Incidence of cancer among persons
living near a municipal solid waste landfill site in Montreal,
Quebec," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 50, No. 6 (November
1995), pgs. 416-424.

[5] K. Mallin, "Investigation of a bladder cancer cluster in
northwestern Illinois," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 132 No.
1 Supplement (July 1990), pgs. S96-S106.

[6] J. Griffith and others, "Cancer mortality in U.S. counties with
hazardous waste sites and ground water pollution," ARCHIVES OF
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 44, No. 2 (March 1989), pgs. 69-74.

[7] H.M.P. Fielder and others, "Report on the health of residents
living near the Nant-Y Gwyddon landfill site using routinely available
data," (Cardiff, Wales: Welsh Combined Centres for Public Health:

[8] G.M. Shaw and others, "Maternal water consumption during pregnancy
and congenital cardiac anomalies," EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 1, No. 3 (May
1990), pgs. 206-211.

[9] S.A. Geschwind and others, "Risk of congenital malformations
associated with proximity to hazardous waste sites," AMERICAN JOURNAL
OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 135, No. 11 (June 1, 1992), pgs. 1197-1207.

[10] L.A. Croen and others, "Maternal residential proximity to
hazardous waste sites and risk of selected congenital malformations,"
EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 8, No. 4 (July 1997), pgs. 347-354.

[11] M. Vrijheid and H. Dolk [EUROHAZCON Collaborative Group],
"Residence near hazardous waste landfill sites and risk of non-
chromosomal congenital malformations [abstract]," TERATOLOGY Vol. 56,
No. 6 (1997), pg. 401.

[12] Nancy E. Reichman, Low Birth Weight and School Readiness, The
Future of Children, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2005. pgs. 91-116.

[13] B. Paigen and others, "Growth of children living near the
hazardous waste site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol. 59, No. 3 (June
1987), pgs. 489-508.

[14] Kirk Brown and K.C. Donnelly, "An Estimation of the Risk
Associated with the Organic Constituents of Hazardous and Municipal
Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pgs. 1-30.