Latinos disproportionately breathe toxic air from big oil and gas

The Total Port Arthur refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. CREDIT: AP/ David J. Phillip

Latinos are 51 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone and nearly two million are living less than half a mile from oil and gas facilities, a National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA) report found.

Toxic oil and gas emissions stemming from the summer ozone season alone are causing Latino children some 153,000 asthma attacks and 112,000 lost school days, according to the report published this month. In addition, the report notes that while Latinos made up 17 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, they make up 20 percent of the population in counties with high cancer risk due to oil and gas emissions.

This report is the first to quantify the elevated health risk faced by millions of Latinos — who are also more likely to be poor and uninsured — due to pollution from oil and gas facilities like wells, refineries, and storage tanks. Oil and gas facilities are known to emit cancer-causing benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and formaldehyde.

CREDIT: Latino Communities at Risk report

Benzene has been linked to cancer, anemia, brain damage, and birth defects, and it is associated with respiratory tract irritation. Hydrogen sulfide gas at high concentrations can cause severe respiratory irritation and death. Formaldehyde has been linked to cancer. It’s been estimated that oil and gas sources produced nearly 22,000 tons of formaldehyde in 2011.

The report also comes as the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing its environmental justice obligations and struggling to help poor communities of color suffering the effects of pollution.

According to the report, more than 1.78 million — or 3 percent of Latinos — live in areas where toxic air from oil and gas production is so high that the associated cancer risk exceeds the EPA’s so-called level of concern.

Children play in a park across the street from the Valero refinery in Manchester, an overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: AP/Pat Sullivan

It noted that four of the 10 metropolitan areas with the most asthma attacks linked to oil and gas ozone pollution are located in Texas. That includes areas in the vicinity of Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin.

Other highly affected metropolitan areas located near oil and gas production zones are found in Los Angeles, Denver, and Albuquerque. And in Kansas and Ohio, more than one in three and one in five Latinos, respectively, live within the half-mile radius of an industry facility.

Around the country, 1.8 million Latinos live within a half mile of an oil and gas plant. Meanwhile, high poverty rates likely prevent Latino families from moving away from these toxic areas. To make matters worse, these communities frequently have limited access to health care and treatment.

About a quarter of Hispanics lived in poverty and without insurance in 2014, according to the report. “Poverty does make a difference,” said Elena Rios, chief executive officer of the NHMA, while at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. “We need to educate Congress about new regulations that we need.”

Over the summer, the EPA finalized rules for methane, smog-forming volatile organic compounds commonly called VOCs, benzene, and other toxic air pollutants in new or modified oil and gas facilities. However, these standards spare least 75 percent of all oil and gas infrastructure in use, which are still operating under old regulations.

The EPA announced this spring it’s crafting a rule that will cover old infrastructure, but these rules can take several months, and even years to go into effect.