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Proximity to Industrial Releases of Toxins
and Childhood Respiratory, Developmental,
and Neurological Diseases:
Environmental Ascription in
East Baton Rouge Parish
Cristina Legot, Bruce London,
John Shandra, and Anna Rosofsky
418 North Pleasant Street Amherst, MA 01002 Revised April 2011 Phone: 413.545.6355 Fax: 413.577.0261 email@example.com www.umass.edu/peri/
WORKINGPAPER SERIESNumber 236
PROXIMITY TO INDUSTRIAL RELEASES OF TOXINS AND CHILDHOOD
RESPIRATORY, DEVELOPMENTAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DISEASES:
ENVIRONMENTAL ASCRIPTION IN EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH*
Many developmental neurotoxins are also classified as respiratory toxins, which are also linked to the sorts of childhood diseases (e.g., asthma) that impact school performance. This case study specifies the degree to which proximity to the main sources of these toxins in EBR is associated with high rates of neurodevelopmental diseases and childhood asthma. We also examine the
relationship between proximity to toxins and race and class. We find very strong patterns:
disease rates are significantly higher in zip codes close to pollution “hot spots” than in more distant zip codes, as are percent minority and percent poverty. This is evidence of “environmental ascription”, the existence of multiple, overlapping ascriptions based on race, class, and “place”. Vulnerable populations are disproportionately exposed to the sorts of toxins that limit their life chances.
Key Words: environmental ascription; developmental neurotoxins; respiratory toxins; childhood diseases; vulnerable populations JEL Codes: Q53; I19; J15 *We would like to thank Michael Ash, of PERI/UMASS, and Dr. James Makol, Pediatrician, of Granite Bay, CA for their comments on an early draft of this paper. In addition to revision suggestions, Professor Ash also provided the RSEI data presented in Table 3 and the stipplots in Figure 1.
INTRODUCTIONMany environmental inequality (EI) studies have shown that sources of toxic pollution are often located near communities inhabited by a disproportionate number of minorities and the poor (Ash and Fetter, 2004; Bullard et al., 2007; Downey at al. 2008; Downey, 2006a,b;
Fitzgerald et al. 2009; Mohai and Saha, 2006; Mohai and Bryant, 1992; Stretesky and Lynch, 2002). These studies often begin with a focus on a specific geographic region or category (e.g., metropolitan areas) and rely on residential proximity to a pollution source as an indicator of exposure, often finding evidence of environmental inequality. The extent and causes of such unequal exposures have been extensively documented. However, one of the core (albeit usually implicit) assumptions of EI proximity studies is that living close to pollution sources has consequences. More research that documents or specifies the health, educational, and lifechance consequences of exposure to toxins is clearly warranted.
Some recent research on these issues combines the focus of traditional environmental inequality studies with a novel focus on yet another vulnerable subset of the population: children (Pastor et al., 2004, 2002). Children are especially susceptible to suffering the harms of exposure to environmental toxins (Morrison and Heath 2008; Grandjean and Landrigan 2006; Landrigan 2002; Kaplan and Morris 2000). Therefore, the study of environmental inequality among children necessitates an increased focus on the consequences of disproportionate exposures.
According to Pastor et al. (2004), who were among the first researchers to explicitly examine this problem, “In some communities, parents have complained of diminished school performance
growing sense is that there may be a link between disparate levels of air pollution and differences in human-capital formation and realization” (Pastor et al. 275). More recently, a study by Legot, London and Shandra (2010a) (see also Legot et al. 2010b) focusing specifically on high volume polluters (HVPs) of developmental neurotoxins found that these HVPs were often located near large numbers of schools and children, and that these numbers were positively and significantly correlated with measures of race and class. Considering these exploratory findings, the authors point to the potential existence of “environmental ascription”—in other words, that in addition to the socially-constructed ascriptive factors of race and class, scholars should also consider the place where a child lives and attends school as another, often interrelated and overlapping ascriptive force. In contrast to earlier environmental inequality studies (which focus on proximity to general sources of pollution such as superfund sites), Legot, London and Shandra’s study began with a focus on those specific toxins that have the greatest potential to harm a child’s learning/cognitive abilities. Hence, the results can be considered “hypothesis-generating” in the sense that it is crucial for future research to establish a connection between the potential for children facing multiple, overlapping ascriptions, and the reality of whether or not communities actually experience elevated levels of certain health problems that can be detrimental to human capital.
One way to do this is through a case-study approach looking at those communities that have been labeled by previous national research on environmental inequality as “hot spots,” or, the “worst of the worst” in terms of HVPs being located in close proximity to large, primarily minority and poor populations and high numbers of schools and children. This is precisely what the present study begins to do. One such “hot spot” discovered in the Legot et al. research is
to two large ExxonMobil facilities (one refinery and one chemical plant), sited within a mile of each other and in close proximity to a large minority and poor population and a number of schools. A large Honeywell Chemical facility is also located within two miles of the Exxon facilities (see below for more detail). These facilities are among the top emitters of developmental neurotoxins in the United States (see Legot et al., 2010b). Previous research, from both locally-based activist groups such as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), as well as from nationally-focused organizations such as the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, has also highlighted the ExxonMobil facilities in particular as especially damaging in terms of overall emissions and their disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations. In this regard, the most recent version of PERI’s “Toxic 100” indicates that 75.4% of the total risk from the Exxon Mobil refinery is borne by minorities, while 33.3% of that risk is borne by the poor. The corresponding rates for the Exxon Mobil chemical plant are 68.5% and 27%. To place these figures in context, we note that the overall percent minority in EBR is 44.4%, while that of the state of Louisiana is 32.1%. Therefore, the percent of risk from Exxon Mobil pollution borne by minorities is clearly disproportionate relative to the parish and state minority populations. The same is true regarding poverty. The parish and state overall percent poverty (17.2% and 17.6%, respectively) is much lower than the risk of pollution from Exxon Mobil facilities borne by the poor.
ExxonMobil was ranked second on PERI’s “Toxic 100,” which lists the worst corporate air polluters in the U.S., taking “into account not only the quantity of releases, but also the toxicity of chemicals, transport factors such as prevailing winds and height of smokestacks, and
company’s many U.S. facilities, the Baton Rouge refinery and chemical plant were considered (respectively) to be the two worst facilities in terms of their toxic scores (quantity x exposure x toxicity x population). Similarly, LABB’s “Common Ground” report notes that within a 2-mile radius of the ExxonMobil refinery, the second-largest oil refinery in the U.S. and the refinery with the highest level of accidental emissions in the state, there is a much higher percentage of minority (86.7% versus 39.6%) and poor (34.1% versus 17.8%) residents when compared with the rest of EBR Parish (“Common Ground” 7). The report also quotes numerous residents that lament the unusual number of health afflictions faced by friends, neighbors, even their own children. Through many such anecdotal accounts, locally-based activist reports often allude to, but do not empirically evaluate, the implicit claims that those living proximate HVPs such as the two ExxonMobil facilities face a higher incidence of a broad range of health problems, many of which can, in turn, act as a detriment to individual life chances or community-level human capital.
Although few studies in the social sciences have focused on the connections between “environmental inequality, health and human capital,” (Pastor et al., 273) there has been a considerable amount of epidemiological and toxicological research that guides the methodology in the present study. For instance, using hospital inpatient discharge data by zip code of residence, several studies by Carpenter and colleagues (Baibergenova et al., 2003; Carpenter et al., 2003; Huang et al., 2006; Kouznetsova et al., 2007; Kudyakov 2004; Shcherbatykh et al.,
2005) have examined the prevalence of various diseases linked to environmental contaminants in New York State by comparing rates of health problems such as low birth weight (Baibergenova et al., 2003), respiratory disease (Kudyakov et al., 2004), and infectious disease in children
other “clean” zip codes. The authors note that using zip code of residence is a “very crude measure” of individual exposure, but it is often the best data available because personal identifiers contained in hospitalization and illness records are confidential. However, this limitation does not mean that assessments using zip code proximity to hazards as an indicator of exposure are not useful; in a study focusing on rates of diabetes and proximity to hazardous waste sites, the authors suggest that “[d]espite the limitations, one might argue that if we find such clear elevations of rates of diabetes when our exposure assessment is so crude, the real relationship between disease and exposure is likely much stronger” (Kouznetsova et al., 2007:78Similarly, a study (DeSoto 2009) finding a relationship between residence in a school district proximate to an EPA Superfund site and rates of autism in children relied on school districts as the unit of analysis. Acknowledging the possibility that some families had relocated, the author still reasons that “if exposure to toxins (prenatally or in early childhood) is playing any causal role in the increase in diagnosis… then proximity to a NPL Superfund location should serve to increase the observed prevalence” (DeSoto 2009:4).
Taken together, these considerations inform the present study. We will attempt to determine whether or not proximity to the already identified high volume releases of developmental neurotoxins in EBR has a demonstrable impact on precisely those childhood diseases that are likely to be caused by exposure to these toxins: childhood asthma and neurodevelopmental diseases (see below). Do places with high levels of developmental neurotoxin releases also have high levels of the specified childhood diseases? At this juncture, it is important to note that many recognized and/or suspected developmental toxins and neurotoxins are also classified as “suspected respiratory toxins” (www.scorecard.org). It is
the specific developmental neurotoxins released by the previously-identified HVPs in EBR are also suspected respiratory toxins. The following highly toxic chemicals are released by Exxon Mobil and/or Honeywell (www.scorecard.org): benzene, lead, chloromethane, mercury, and carbon tetrachloride. All of these are associated with all three health effects. Consequently, it is possible that some of the same toxins that are causally linked to neurodevelopmental diseases are also causes of childhood asthma.
Note that this extremely useful classification scheme is the only source that permits researchers to focus, as we do, on specific categories of toxins (see above). It (a) lists chemicals by type of health impact (i.e., developmental, neurological, respiratory, and others), and (b) specifies industrial sources of these categories by volume using data from EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) for the year 2002. It is available only on www.scorecard.org/health-effects/, a website created by Environmental Defense, and currently maintained by Green Media Toolshed.
Using information from scholarly, scientific research and regulatory agencies, Scorecard provides lists of chemicals that lead to several types of health impacts. “Chemicals whose health hazards are widely recognized by authoritative scientific organizations are separated from chemicals whose health hazards are suspected on the basis of more limited data.” Lists are available for a dozen different adverse health effects, including those presently under consideration. “Developmental toxicants are agents that cause adverse effects on the developing child…(such as) psychological or behavioral deficits that become manifest as the child grows”.