Imagine you live in a community surrounded by oil refineries, a large metal shredding facility, chemical and cement manufacturing facilities, as well as numerous other heavy industries that emit toxic pollution. Now add the stress and health impacts from frequent industrial facility incidents that result in the release of toxic chemicals into your community. For the residents of two east Houston communities, Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park, they don’t need to imagine this frightening scenario—this is their everyday reality.
A new UCS Center for Science and Democracy report, “Double Jeopardy in Houston: Acute and Chronic Chemical Exposures Pose Disproportionate Risks for Marginalized Communities”, and companion interactive map, prepared in collaboration with the Houston community group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), examined the risks from chemical facility releases and toxic air pollution exposure for these two predominantly Latino and low-income east Houston communities and compared them to two predominantly White and more upscale west Houston communities, Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge.
The Houston communities studied
Galena Park and Manchester/Harrisburg are both majority Latino, with average household incomes of $49,732 and $45,431, respectively. In Galena Park, 21 percent of residents live in poverty, and 37 percent of Manchester/Harrisburg residents live below the poverty line. West Oaks/Eldridge has an average household income of $91,025, with only 11 percent of its residents below the poverty line, and the wealthy, majority-white Bellaire neighborhood has an average household income of $226,333 and a poverty rate of 3 percent.
Toxic air pollution exposures and health risks
Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, the study found substantially higher concentrations of toxic air pollutants and higher risks of cancer and respiratory illness in the two east Houston communities compared to both the west Houston communities as well as the overall Houston urban area. Residents of the Harrisburg/Manchester community have a 24 to 30 percent higher cancer risk when compared to Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge, respectively. People in Galena Park face cancer risks that are 30 to 36 percent higher than those in Bellaire and West Oak/Eldridge, respectively. The risk of respiratory hazards in Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park is 24 percent greater than in Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge.
These greater health risks are consistent with findings of substantially higher levels of toxic chemicals in the east Houston communities. For example, the toxicity-adjusted concentration of 1,3-butadiene, a carcinogen that also has a host of adverse neurological effects, was 174 times and 29 times greater in Harrisburg/Manchester than the levels in West Oaks/Eldridge and Bellaire, respectively, and levels in Galena Park were 228 times and 38 times greater.
Distribution of high-risk industrial facilities
The potential for an unplanned industrial facility release of toxic chemicals into these east Houston communities is also substantially greater. Manchester/Harrisburg has 5 facilities in a 1-mile radius and 16 in a 3-mile radius, while Galena Park has 8 facilities in a 1-mile radius and 28 in a 3-mile radius. In Manchester/Harrisburg, 39 percent of residents live within a mile of a chemical facility; 90 percent of people in Galena Park live within a mile of a facility. Across the city in Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge, it’s a different story with only 15 and 9 percent of residents living within 1 mile of a chemical facility, respectively. In the five years prior to the latest EPA reports, Manchester/Harrisburg and Galena Park each faced two major chemical facility incidents, while Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge reported none. However many other incidents are not required to be reported to the EPA. Over the past two years in Houston, explosions and releases that were big enough, or hurt enough people for the public to take notice, happened once every five weeks.
Using science to achieve environmental justice for vulnerable communities
Utilizing an analysis of three separate EPA databases, the findings of this study highlight that these vulnerable east Houston communities, like many others across the country, face disproportionately high levels of toxic air and chemical pollution—and the attendant health effects—as well as health and safety risks from this concentration of high-risk and heavily polluting facilities that underscore the need for environmental justice for these communities. EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
These risks represent only a subset of the many factors that influence the health and well-being of the east Houston communities covered in this report and many other similar vulnerable communities across the country. Indoor air pollution, mold and lead from inadequate housing, lack of access to health care, healthy foods, and public transportation, along with other stresses related to poverty and crime, are just some of the compounding factors that contribute to the cumulative health impacts on residents of environmental justice communities. Given the multi-dimensional components of this issue, involvement from a broad scope of scientific and technical disciplines including environmental science, environmental health, sociology, epidemiology, risk assessment, urban planning, and public policy, to name just a few, will be needed to ultimately achieve the environmental justice that residents of these communities need and deserve.