October 27, 2016

Houston Chemical Facilities Put Vulnerable Communities in Double Jeopardy

Study Finds Communities of Color, Low-Income Communities Face Higher Risks from Accidents, Exposure

Houston, TX (October 27, 2016)— A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Houston community-based group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) highlights that the long-term health effects of exposure to toxic air pollution, and the threat of disastrous industrial facility chemical releases in Houston aren’t spread evenly. They’re much more serious for communities of color and low-income communities.

In the new report, “Double Jeopardy in Houston,” researchers compared the risks from chemical facilities and toxic air pollution in two communities on Houston’s east side – the Manchester/Harrisburg neighborhoods and the city of Galena Park – to two wealthier communities in west Houston, West Oaks/Eldridge and Bellaire. UCS researchers worked closely t.e.j.a.s. to develop the study, and to help empower Houston residents to fully understand and act on these health dangers. The study shows substantially higher concentrations of toxic air pollutants and higher risks of cancer and respiratory illness in the two east Houston communities. The more severe impacts on lower-income communities of color violate the principles of environmental justice.

“The gap is really striking,” said Ron White, a senior fellow for the UCS Center for Science and Democracy and a co-author of the report. “It’s a clear illustration of how the risks from  chemical facilities and health impacts from daily exposure to toxic air pollution are disproportionately greater for these predominately low-income communities of color in Houston. Because of the large number of nearby chemical facilities and levels of dangerous air pollution—and because these communities don’t have adequate protections— the safety and health of thousands of people are unfairly put in danger.”

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. Both of these neighborhoods are home to, and are surrounded by, numerous chemical facilities. 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. West Oaks/Eldridge has an average household income of $91,025, with only 11 percent of its residents below the poverty line—and only 15 percent of residents there live within 1 mile of a chemical facility. In the wealthy, majority-white Bellaire neighborhood, with an average household income of $226,333 and a poverty rate of 3 percent, only 9 percent of residents live within 1 mile of a chemical facility.

These differences become stark when comparing the health effects of such exposure to pollution. 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.

Manchester/Harrisburg and Galena Park have each seen two major chemical facility accidents in the five years prior to the most recent EPA reports. Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge have not had any chemical facility accidents during that time.

“This is an issue of racial and economic justice,” said Charise Johnson, a UCS research associate and a co-author of the new report. “These neighborhoods in Houston are just two examples of frontline communities where people of color and those living in poverty bear the biggest impacts of pollution. We have to address this problem both locally and at the national level.”

UCS researchers have created an interactive online map of chemical facility and air pollution risks as well as fact sheets in both English and Spanish in collaboration with t.e.j.a.s.to inform Houston residents about the dangers of the chemicals they’re exposed to. t.e.j.a.s. will use this new research to help residents in those at-risk communities advocate for better policies and safeguards to prevent disasters and reduce dangerous exposure to pollution.

“These communities deserve clear, honest scientific information about what’s happening in their neighborhoods,” said White. “The risks are real. We need better practices at the federal, state, and local levels and within companies to make sure that families can be safe from chemical releases and air pollution risks in their homes, at their schools, playgrounds and at work.” 

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The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.