April 02, 2006

Poisoning the Poor in Massachusetts

This is reprinted, with permission, from Rachel's Democracy & Health News #848, published by the Environmental Research Foundation.

This is data from only one state. Multiply this by 50 states, with many variations on these numbers, and you will have some idea of the degradation of our environment, and how the poor and minorities bear the brunt of our increasingly poisoned world. We are all being poisoned, some faster than others.


Environmental Injustice in Massachusetts
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 circumstances. 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 communities.

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% nonwhites.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 environmentaland human health problems at the hands of business and government. Asa 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 anddisposal/treatment facilities, including landfills, incinerators, andtrash transfer stations;
and (3) higher rates of "on the job" exposureto 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 lowbirth 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, polycyclicaromatic 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 ashlandfills, 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, from1990-2002, 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 andacrolein -- 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 a poor community you have an average of 9.9 industrial polluters in your back yard, and your community absorbs an average of1.6 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 246,428pounds 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 lethality."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 inMassachusetts."[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 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]

[1] http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=550#EPA_Admits_Blacks_and_Hispanics_Live_with_Excessive_Pollution

[2] Daniel Faber and Eric Krieg, Unequal Exposure to EcologicalHazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth ofMassachusetts. Northeastern University, October 2005. Availablehere.

[3] State of New York Department of Health INVESTIGATION OF CANCERINCIDENCE AND RESIDENCE NEAR 38 LANDFILLS WITH SOIL GAS MIGRATIONCONDITIONS, NEW YORK STATE, 1980-1989 (Atlanta, GA: Agency for ToxicSubstances and Disease Registry, June, 1998).

[4] M.S. Goldberg and others, "Incidence of cancer among personsliving near a municipal solid waste landfill site in Montreal,Quebec," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 50, No. 6 (November1995), pgs. 416-424.

[5] K. Mallin, "Investigation of a bladder cancer cluster innorthwestern 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 withhazardous waste sites and ground water pollution," ARCHIVES OFENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 44, No. 2 (March 1989), pgs. 69-74.

[7] H.M.P. Fielder and others, "Report on the health of residentsliving near the Nant-Y Gwyddon landfill site using routinely availabledata," (Cardiff, Wales: Welsh Combined Centres for Public Health:1997).

[8] G.M. Shaw and others, "Maternal water consumption during pregnancyand congenital cardiac anomalies," EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 1, No. 3 (May1990), pgs. 206-211.

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

[10] L.A. Croen and others, "Maternal residential proximity tohazardous 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, TheFuture of Children, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2005. pgs. 91-116.

[13] B. Paigen and others, "Growth of children living near thehazardous waste site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol. 59, No. 3 (June1987), pgs. 489-508.

[14] Kirk Brown and K.C. Donnelly, "An Estimation of the RiskAssociated with the Organic Constituents of Hazardous and MunicipalWaste Landfill Leachates," HAZARDOUS WASTES AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS,Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pgs. 1-30.

Reprinted from


thepoetryman said...

They'll need some of these agencies services over in Iraq to unearth the depleted uranium we showered the country in.

Nice post by the way. Very informative.

Kvatch said...

That's an excellent article. Thanks for reposting it.

I was raised on the Texas/Mexico border, and all you had to do to get a good sense of the squalid conditions the "real" poor lived in was to look accross the Rio Grande into the "Colonias" on the Mexican side--no running water, no paved streets, no indoor plumbing, little electricity. And not surprisingly the major copper smelter in the area, Asarco, had their plant situated right on the border where the SO2 emmissions would waft right over the river into Mexico--right through the Colonias. Sad.

Sarah said...

Excellent piece- Thanks for posting it. This kind of information needs to be circulated as much as possible.

evision said...