The air pollution from industrial plants in America has led to an estimated quarter of a million Americans being at a higher risk of cancer. Many areas, including the infamous 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, remain unknown to residents who routinely breathe the contaminated air. Cancer-causing chemicals from thousands of hazardous air pollution sources across the country have spread between 2014 and 2018. The result is toxic air blooms around industrial facilities and nearby communities.

The majority of residents in these areas are people of color and they experience about 40% more cancer-causing industrial air pollution on average than tracts where the residents are mostly white. The analysis also revealed that companies across the United States, particularly in Texas and Louisiana, manufacture ethylene oxide, the biggest contributor to excess industrial cancer risk from air pollutants nationwide.

Despite years of advancements, air quality has started to deteriorate. The Trump administration removed over a hundred environmental safeguards, which included around twenty-four regulations concerning air pollution and emissions.

The EPA has reinvigorated its commitment to protecting public health under President Joe Biden’s administration, however, flaws with the EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act, a landmark law that dramatically reduced air pollution provided less protection to those who live closest to industrial polluters, or so-called “fence-line communities.”

The agency’s assessment of the risk significantly underestimates the exposure of residents. Instead of considering the cumulative cancer risk in cases where polluters are concentrated in a particular neighborhood, the EPA focuses on examining specific types of facilities and equipment in isolation without considering much of the industrial support necessary at sites like this.

“The environmental regulatory system wasn’t set up to deal with these things. All of the parts of the system have to be re-thought to address hot spots or places where we know there’s a disproportionate burden.” -Matthew Tejada, director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice

Residents living near polluting facilities are often left in the dark about the toxins that they are being exposed to, as the Clean Air Act does not frequently mandate monitoring by either the EPA or industry. Moreover, companies are allowed to use flawed formulas and monitoring methods to estimate their emissions when reporting to the EPA.