Oil and gas group says African American ‘genetics’ are to blame for health problems, not pollution

API dismisses new pollution study with discredited racist notion.

Samuel McGlory Jr. throws out debris in front of his home after Hurricane Harvey as an oil refinery stands in the background. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
Samuel McGlory Jr. throws out debris in front of his home after Hurricane Harvey as an oil refinery stands in the background. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

The American Petroleum Institute cast shady aspersions on a recent study that warned of increased risks to African Americans who live near oil and gas refineries, citing the discredited and racist argument that “genetics” could be to blame for the health disparities.

“Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities,” a shared study recently produced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force, found that more than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of oil and gas wells and operations, and that another 6.7 million live in counties with refineries.

The toxic environment millions of African Americans live in close proximity to is also making many of them sick.

“Many African American communities face an elevated risk of cancer due to air toxics emissions from natural gas development,” the report stated. “The air in many African American communities violates air quality standards for ozone smog. Rates of asthma are relatively high in African American communities. And, as a result of ozone increases due to natural gas emissions during the summer ozone season, African American children are burdened by 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year.”

But Uni Blake, a scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs at API, defended the oil and gas industry in a blog post. “I’ve read an NAACP paper released this week that accuses the natural gas and oil industry of emissions that disproportionately burden African American communities,” Blake wrote for Energy Tomorrow, an online publication of the behemoth oil and gas trade association. “As a scientist, my overall observation is that the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted, within the African American community.”

So if not the pollutants spewed by the industry Uni represents, what might have caused the disproportionate findings in the report? Blake’s answer: something in the genes of black people might have made them sick.

“Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations — such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care,” she wrote.

Blake cited a 2005 report by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and the National Pharmaceutical Council as support for her genetics theory. But the report, “Ethnic Disparities in the Burden and Treatment of Asthma,” actually argues that genetics plays a grossly subordinate role to environmental factors in the prevalence of asthma among African-American and Latino populations in the United States. The report stated:

Household surveys have identified a maternal history or other family history of asthma as a leading risk factor for childhood asthma, highlighting the hereditary component of asthma morbidity… It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the greater burden of asthma among U.S. populations with a significant African ancestry (specifically, the black and Puerto Rican populations)… is somehow related to African genes — or to a combination of African and European genes. However, most of the evidence to date seems to indicate that the explanation lies elsewhere, in socioeconomic and environmental disparities, in behavioral or cultural differences, and in access to routine health care.

In other words, even the “scholarly research” that Blake cited contradicts her hypothesis and pointed to environmental degradation caused by the oil and gas industry as a more likely culprit in making African Americans and Latinos sick.

Officials at API, including Blake, could not be reached for comment.

The notion that genetic differences account for disparate health outcomes across racial and ethnic groups is an old and racist idea that has its roots in the noxious eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, when white supremacists advocated forced sterilization of humans — often people of color — deemed “mentally inferior” or “unfit to propagate.”

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, expressed outrage at the API argument, calling it “an insult to the intelligence of not just African Americans but the intelligence of the American people who know better.”

Bullard, who is known as the father of the environmental justice movement, said other big business interests have tried unsuccessfully to make the same argument. “The [oil and gas] folks that responded to the study are basically using the same argument [as the tobacco industry] that it’s not the chemicals and the oil and gas, but it’s the people whose own behavior somehow drive the health disparities,” he said in a statement. “It’s pushing blame off on individuals who live near these facilities and absolving these companies from any kind of responsibility.”

Experts who sponsored the NAACP/Clean Air Task Force report condemned API for reviving long discredited ideas.

“Above and beyond other factors, the oil and gas operations in communities causes an extra level of risk,” Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice program, said in a statement. “Other people who live in those communities also have those health conditions that result from those exposures. That would discount the role of ‘genetics.'”

Put another way, it’s not in the genes. White people who live in or near environmentally toxic communities are just as likely to get asthma, cancer, and other ailments as black people.

Leslie Fleishchman, a Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author, agreed. “The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among the population and so, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it is even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure,” she said in a statement.