Millions of Americans are dying faster because of toxic contamination

April 13, 2021
Proximity to Superfund sites affects life expectancy of millions of Americans. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Proximity to Superfund sites affects life expectancy of millions of Americans. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

A hazardous waste site shaves up to 1.22 years off a neighboring community's life expectancy, a new study shows, with the worst effects occurring in poorer neighborhoods with more people of color.

Millions of children grow up within a mile of a federally designated Superfund site, an area with toxic contamination requiring long-term cleanup, according to the authors of the study. Even setting aside moral obligations, the waste "could [cost] billions of dollars in the form of medical costs and lost productivity alone," they wrote.

Much of the previous research on Superfund sites has focused on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List. This study, published April 13 in Nature Communications, looked beyond the more than 1,300 priority sites to include around 11,700 sites under consideration for the list, removed from the list and not overseen by the EPA. The effects at these often overlooked sites, the researchers found, were worse on the whole. 

On average, a Superfund site costs the people in its census tract 68 days of life.

"Researchers have been interested in death rates associated with cancer, heart disease, etc., but not necessarily with death rates associated with exposure to contamination," said Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston and a co-author of the paper. 

Rifai told The Academic Times that she hopes the paper will spark "interest in undertaking more studies to understand more fully how to address this issue." A majority of sites managed by the EPA are in areas prone to weather events such as flooding or wildfires, which are increasing as the climate emergency leads to more extreme weather patterns.

The contiguous U.S. has 72,268 census tracts; the researchers got life expectancy data from the National Center for Health Statistics for 65,226 tracts from 2010 to 2015. Overall, Americans were expected to live to 78.5 years. 

In tracts without a Superfund site, life expectancy rose to 78.7 years. But in the 12,717 tracts with at least one contaminated site, life expectancy fell to 77.5 years — living close to hazardous waste took off at least a year in this comparison. 

The results also showed the deadly toll of systemic racism and poverty. If the proportion of white people in a census tract went up by 1%, life expectancy could go up by 9.5 days. When the median income went up by $10,000, life expectancy went up by 86 days. 

Moreover, the effects of a Superfund site were worst in the most impoverished places: Tracts in the lower 10th percentile for income lost 1.223 years, while high-income neighborhoods could mostly or completely escape the effects of a Superfund site. 

"Life expectancy is an important metric," Rifai told The Academic Times. "To put things in perspective ... a government report relating to COVID-19 [said that] U.S. life expectancy dropped to 77.8 years, down one full year from the 78.8 years estimated in 2019. So the 1.22 years can be perceived in a similar context."

The study, "The presence of Superfund sites as a determinant of life expectancy in the United States," published April 13 in Nature Communications, was authored by Amin Kiaghadi and Hanadi S. Rifai, University of Houston; and Clint N. Dawson, University of Texas at Austin.

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