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How does the environment affect the health of urban poor?

How does the environment affect the health of urban poor?

Picture of Erica Peterson

I believe health is the key to making people care about environmental issues.

Across the country, power plants spew mercury into the air, but it’s hard to make the case for stricter pollution limits without referencing the devastating effects heavy metals have on human health. In Appalachia, coal mining advocates dismiss stories about ecosystems killed by mountaintop removal but studies about links to human birth defects give them pause. And here in Louisville, many aren’t sure what long-term effects will result from the air they breathe, which on some summer days is bad enough to prompt the city’s government to warn vulnerable people to stay indoors.

These air pollution issues are concerns for everyone in Louisville, but nowhere in town is the intersection of health and pollution more obvious than in the residential neighborhoods on the city’s west side. The aptly-named “Rubbertown” is home to 11 major chemical companies, including Zeon Chemical, DuPont, Dow Chemical and American Synthetic Rubber Corporation.

Rubbertown is a large source of blue-collar jobs in Louisville. The companies there are also the largest source of industrial air emissions in Louisville, and its industries release more than 3 million pounds of air toxics annually. This affects the air quality citywide, but for the residential neighborhoods clustered within a mile of the industrial areas the effects are much more salient.

For these residents, strange odors are a common occurrence. The strong smells sometimes make their eyes water and cause dizziness. Often, the residents aren’t sure what chemicals they’re breathing, and whether there are long-term health effects associated with the odors. No comprehensive health surveys have been done, but anecdotally, there are high rates of tumors and leukemia in the neighborhoods near Rubbertown.

This is still going on, but the residents admit the air is much better than it used to be. Over the past decade, Louisville has implemented a Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program. This has greatly improved the air quality, but the emissions are still of concern to local residents and public health experts. Butadiene, a compound that’s been found to cause cancer in lab rats, has been reduced by 80 percent over the past 10 years. Even so, the emissions are still at 18 times the “safe” level.

As a National Health Fellow, I’ll speak with the people affected by Rubbertown’s constant pollution and explore the health issues with links to air pollution.

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