Beyond Flint: What You Need to Know About Toxic Communities

Study Proves Poor & Minority Communities Experience the Worst Pollution

Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant, indicative of how toxic pollution is more likely to occur near poor communities and communities of color in the U.S.
Smoke from the Cholla Power Plant (powered by coal) mixes with clouds at sunset in Joseph City, Arizona. Rob Hammer/Getty Images

In January 2016 attention across the U.S. turned to Flint, Michigan, a poor, majority-minority community that has been poisoned by toxic drinking water polluted with lead. This tragedy of structural inequality resonates with many who study environmental inequality as an example of how poor communities and those that are majority non-white experience disproportionate levels of dangerous toxic pollution. But to date evidence to support this trend has been mostly anecdotal and small-scale in nature.

A new study that relies on big data to test this claim has revealed it to be true. The study, titled "Linking 'toxic outliers' to environmental justice communities," and published in Environmental Research Letters in January 2016, found that across the U.S., the worst toxic polluters are mostly located in communities experiencing significant structural oppression--those that are primarily poor, and those composed of people of color.

Led by sociologist Mary Collins, and produced in partnership with environmental scientists Ian Munoz and Jose Jaja, the study relied on Environmental Protection Agency data on 16,000 polluting facilities across the U.S., and socio-demographic data from the 2000 Census to examine the connection. Analysis of emissions data from the facilities revealed that just five percent of them produced 90 percent of total air emissions generated during 2007.

To measure the likelihood of exposure to these 809 "hyper-polluters," Collins and her colleagues created a sample population that included neighborhoods in all counties of the U.S, which resulted in a sample size of over 4 million units. For each data unit (neighborhood) the researchers documented estimated exposure to toxic pollution; number of nearby facilities that produce emissions; total population and portion of population that is white; and total number of households and household income of all households. For this sample the average household income was $64,581, and the average proportion of those reporting "white alone" for race on the Census was 82.5 percent.

The researchers found that the 100 worst polluters were mostly in neighborhoods with household incomes that fell below the sample population average, and where fewer people reported "white only" as their race, as compared with the sample average. These findings confirm the suspicion that poor communities and communities of color experience the worst of environmental pollution in the U.S.

Importantly, the researchers, and many fighting for what they call "environmental justice" recognize that this problem is a result of imbalances in power, and abuse of power by those that hold it--namely, large corporations. Citing the work of economist James K. Boyce, Collins and her colleagues point out that economic and racial inequality themselves are likely fostering toxic environmental pollution. They note that their findings validate two of Boyce's hypotheses: "(1) that environmental degradation depends on the balance of power where winners derive benefits and losers bear net costs; and (2) that all else equal, greater inequality in power and wealth leads to more environmental degradation." Boyce further reasons that "in societies with powerful winners and powerless losers, more environmental degradation will occur because the winners are likely to be unconcerned with the effects of their actions on the losers."

The research by Collins and her colleagues suggests that Boyce's hypotheses are accurate: there are clear, observable connections between extreme imbalances of power--in this case those between wealthy corporations and those who experience economic and racial inequality--and toxic environmental degradation.

The authors of the study argue that their results suggest that targeted regulation of the worst polluters is more important and pressing than industry-wide initiatives, because the vast majority of the pollution is coming from a tiny portion of industrial emitters. But we can also extrapolate, from a sociological standpoint, that economic inequality and racism breed excessive pollution, by rendering affected populations unlikely or unable to protect themselves and their communities, due to imbalances in power that have serious political implications.

While it is evidence for the need for more stringent regulation of environmental pollution, this study also provides further evidence for why we must address they society-wide problems of severe wealth inequality and systemic racism.