by Maya Miller, illustrations by Laila Milevski, with additional reporting by Lisa Song, Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman and Al Shaw
You may be one of the millions of people across the country who has lived in an area with an increased estimated cancer risk because of the chemicals industrial facilities release into the air.
A number of residents have asked for more information about what this means, what the laws are, and what — if anything — they can do to protect themselves and their communities when the regulatory system does not. To answer their questions, we spoke to health experts and academics who study toxic air pollution, government officials and other residents who have lived in hot spots for decades. We also dug into reports and data.
Yes. Different types of air pollution have been linked to a variety of cancers. Regulators and scientists use the term “air toxics” to describe chemicals that can cause cancer or other serious health impacts such as asthma and heart disease.
Even though air pollution can cause cancer, it is rarely possible to identify a single cause for one person’s cancer diagnosis. There are many factors that impact someone’s chances of developing cancer, including:
These risk factors can sometimes compound one another, increasing the chance that cancer may develop.
Just like cars have brake pedals and emergency brakes to avoid accidents, the human body has defense mechanisms against the growth of damaged or abnormal cells that can cause cancer, said Edward Trapido, the chair of cancer epidemiology at Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health. If a car has a history of brake line leaks and the driver is riding through a heavy rainstorm, it can be more likely that an accident will occur. Similarly, if you have a family history of certain cancers and are exposed to additional toxic air pollution that can mutate DNA, damaged or abnormal cells may be more likely to slip by your body’s defense systems, leaving you at a higher risk of developing cancer.
Industrial facilities are spaces companies own and operate to create products. Take BASF and Dow, two of the largest chemical companies worldwide. The companies run dozens of industrial facilities across the United States, where they make chemicals that go into everyday household items like laundry detergent and dish soap. Other industrial facilities include oil refineries and companies that sterilize medical equipment. ProPublica’s reporting is focused on the largest polluters with the greatest potential to affect local cancer risk.
Because many industrial facilities have to make this information public. They are required to report the types and amount of toxic air pollutants they release to the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has a screening tool that models how the chemicals industrial facilities emit spread across communities nationwide. You can see how far this toxic air pollution spreads on ProPublica’s interactive map.
It is important to note that this data collection process is imperfect and prone to inaccuracies. (More on that here.) One of the best ways to know what a facility is releasing is by testing the air coming out of the facilities’ smokestacks. But this rarely happens. (More on that in a later story.)
People living in areas with industrial air pollution may have a higher additional risk of developing cancer over their lifetime.
Toxic air pollution can enter your body when you breathe it in. If the toxic air pollutant is a known carcinogen, that means it can increase your risk of developing certain cancers by disrupting the way cells are produced in your body and mutating their DNA. These cancerous cells can then crowd out healthy cells, causing a cascade of effects. There can be other health consequences from this toxic air, ranging from headaches to heart disease. (More on the types of cancers and health effects below.)
These pollutants can enter your body through other pathways, too. Toxic pollution can seep into nearby soil or water systems. Your skin can be exposed by touching surfaces with toxics on them, though this is likely to result in smaller doses of exposure. You may also be exposed by eating food grown in toxic soil or by drinking contaminated water.
About evaluating your own cancer risk
Scientists and regulators assess additional cancer risk using a figure they call Incremental Lifetime Cancer Risk. This lets them compare how many more people in a given community are likely to get cancer assuming they are exposed to a chemical 24 hours a day for 70 years (a presumed human lifetime).
For example, let’s say you are in an area where elevated cancer risk from industrial air pollution is estimated to be 1 in 10,000. That means of every 10,000 people living in this area over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, it is estimated that at least one additional person will get cancer.
You can find the estimated elevated cancer risk in your area by visiting ProPublica’s interactive map. ProPublica analyzed and mapped five years of modeled data to understand how toxic air pollution may increase communities’ estimated cancer risk. The data models added cancer risk between 2014 and 2018. As you read the map, remember that the elevated risk is an estimate and a starting point to identify areas of potential concern. There are also other associated health risks not captured by the data.
This depends on who you ask, but the EPA generally considers any estimated additional cancer risk that reaches 1 in 10,000 not sufficiently protective of public health, according to the agency’s Office of Inspector General. The agency can — yet will not always — intervene when the estimated elevated cancer risk reaches this level.
The agency also maintains that it strives to “protect the greatest number of people possible” from an estimated additional cancer risk level higher than 1 in a million but generally views this amount of risk as acceptable.
According to our analysis, about 250,000 people live in areas where the estimated increased lifetime cancer risk is above 1 in 10,000 because of toxic air pollution. Tens of millions of people live in areas where this estimated additional risk is higher than 1 in a million.
It depends on the toxic air pollutant, and how much of it is in the air you are breathing. Scientists assume people live continuously in an area for 70 years and are exposed to this toxic air pollution for 24 hours a day when evaluating elevated cancer risk. But research has found that exposure to chemicals for even shorter periods of time can lead to cancer cases.
The time between exposure and diagnosis, known as the latency period, is different for each chemical and depends on how much of the chemical you were exposed to.
You may be exposed to toxic air pollution, especially if you work in an industrial facility.
In that case, you have a legal right to request more information on your exposure levels from your employer. (If you’re interested in getting this information, let ProPublica know by filling out the form at the bottom of this article.) Workplace regulations on chemical safety are different from air pollution laws for the general public. Workers within these facilities are likely exposed to higher concentrations of toxic chemicals than residents who live nearby.
It depends which toxic air pollutants you are exposed to. To find out more about your own situation:
Toxic air pollution that is carcinogenic, meaning it can mutate DNA, may put children at a greater risk than adults.
Here are some other resources with more information on industrial facilities, the toxic air pollution they release and estimated health risks:
You may also want to consult the federal government’s plain English guide to the Clean Air Act as you learn more.
About environmental laws and regulations
The EPA publishes and reviews standards for the pollution-reducing technologies industrial facilities use to reduce the amount of toxic pollution released into the air. The agency then relies on air modeling to screen for areas with estimated increased cancer risk. If the EPA finds an area where the estimated additional lifetime cancer risk around industrial facilities is higher than 1 in 10,000, officials can — but are not required to — investigate whether the risk is actually that high, why it might be that high and what steps to take to lower the risk levels.
Industrial facilities also need permits to operate, which is where state officials come in. These officials are largely responsible for approving and denying these permits, which are called Title V permits. When deciding whether a permit should be approved, states are not always required to consider how proposed new sources of pollution may add onto the risk nearby communities already face from other types of pollution. State officials usually approve these permits with little pushback, according to environmental law experts.
Residents can petition the EPA to set stricter standards for facilities or file a petition with the state if the modeled elevated cancer risk is more than 1 in 10,000. Victor B. Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston, said this is a years-long process that has rarely led to significant changes for residents living near facilities.
Even with these processes, ProPublica found that people are being exposed to estimated cancer levels the EPA considers not acceptable (more on that here). When ProPublica spoke with EPA officials about its findings, Matthew Tejada, director of the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, acknowledged that the system for regulating and reducing toxic air pollution is inadequate. “We haven’t regulated for these things,” Tejada said.
Tejada said the agency is working on solutions, but explained that some will take time, maybe even decades.
A number of communities have used the National Environmental Policy Act to push back against companies looking to build or expand industrial facilities. Under the law and an ensuing executive order, federal agencies have to consider the overall environmental consequences before approving a project, as well as the potential for disproportionate impact on communities of color. People who may be impacted by the potential pollution are guaranteed the opportunity to provide comments and feedback. To learn more about the law, check out this guide.
The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice also has a hotline people can call or email with concerns or questions.
Some residents told us that they decide not to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy when a monitor shows high levels of pollutants. You can check your local air quality at airnow.gov, but this does not include information specifically on air toxics levels from industrial facilities.
Over the EPA’s decades-long history, lawsuits have prompted the agency to carry out its responsibilities. For example, the EPA agreed to review and update emissions standards for dozens of toxic air pollutants after environmental groups filed a lawsuit alleging the agency failed to do so within the required time frame.
The EPA did not respond to a specific request for comment about the role of lawsuits in the agency’s work. But Joe Goffman, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told ProPublica in an emailed statement that the agency recognized the need to “develop regulatory solutions” to reduce toxic air pollution from industrial facilities.
Here’s a link to our methodology for this project. To read more about how these hot spots formed, read our overview story.
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