The Dow Chemical company and its subsidiary Union Carbide are the biggest single contributor to hot spots of toxic air pollution in the entire United States, according to studies conducted by ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. The studies, conducted between 2014-2018, reveal more than 70 million Americans (one fifth of the population) are being exposed to levels of toxic air pollution that result in a cancer risk higher than 1 in 1 million, the target highest acceptable limit of the Environmental Protection Agency. A cancer risk from pollution of 1 in 1 million means that if a million people in an area are continuously exposed to toxic air pollutants over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least 1 case of cancer on top of those from other risks people already face.
Any area of toxic pollution in which the cancer risk is above this 1 in 1 million threshold is deemed by the EPA to represent an area of ‘excess’ risk, and they have set the limit of acceptable excess risk at 1 in 10,000, a staggering 100 times higher than their target acceptable level. Despite this, more than a quarter of a million people in the U.S. live in areas in which toxic air pollution from the chemical industry exceeds even this allowable excess level, but still the law does not require that they penalize the companies responsible.
Of the more than 1,000 hot spots of toxic air pollution identified by the study, emissions from plants and factories operated by either Dow Chemical or their subsidiary Union Carbide covered more populated square miles than those of any other company. It has been nearly 37 years since Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial disaster (and 20 years since Dow’s merger with Carbide in 2001), but it appears no lessons have been learned from the thousands of deaths and decades of human suffering that followed. There appears to be as little accountability today as there was all those years ago in 1984, and the chemical industry continues to damage the health of people world wide with impunity.
Two of the most common toxic gases emitted by chemical plants in the U.S. are benzene and ethylene oxide, both of which are extremely hazardous to human health and known to cause leukemia and other cancers. The study found that across the nation ethylene oxide, a colourless, odourless gas, was the biggest contributor to excess cancer risk. It can linger in the air for months and is highly mutagenic, meaning it can alter DNA. Methyl isocyanate, the gas that leaked from the UCC factory in Bhopal, was also mutagenic, and we are still seeing the effects of exposure in the children being born with disabilities and birth defects three generations on.
As we begin to see the effects of the climate crisis across the world, we now stand at a critical point when it comes to issues of corporate responsibility and the threat the chemical industry poses not only to human health in local communities, but globally. We need to see policy changes that allow for the legal prosecution of companies that continue to produce toxic emissions at levels that are deemed to be hazardous to human health, and closer checks on the operations of big chemical companies like Dow Chemical worldwide. If we do not, we will soon all be living in Bhopal.