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Cumulative cancer risk from air pollution in Houston: Disparities in risk burden and social disadvantage

Citation: Environmental Science & Technology, 2008, 42, 12, 4312-4322

Air toxics are of particular concern in Greater Houston, home to one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes and a quarter of the nation’s refining capacity. Much of this complex lies along a navigable ship channel that flows 50 miles from east of the central business district through Galveston Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico. Numerous communities, including both poor and affluent neighborhoods, are located in close proximity to the 200 facilities along this channel. Our aim is to examine the spatial distribution of cumulative, air-pollution related cancer risks in Houston and Harris County, with particular emphasis on identifying ethnic, economic, and social disparities. We employ exposure estimates from NATA-1999 and census data to assess whether the cumulative cancer risks from air toxics in Houston (and Harris County) fall disproportionately on certain ethnicities and on the socially and economically disadvantaged. The cancer risk burden across Harris County census tracts increases with the proportion of residents who are Hispanic and with key indicators of relative social disadvantage. Aggregate disadvantage grows at each higher level of cancer risk. The highest cancer risk in Harris County is concentrated along a corridor flanking the ship channel. These high-risk neighborhoods, however, vary markedly in relative disadvantage, as well as in emission source mix. Much of the risk they face appears to be driven by only a few hazardous air pollutants. Results provide evidence of risk disparities from hazardous air pollution based on ethnicity and social disadvantage. At the highest levels of risk the pattern is more complex, arguing for a neighborhood level of analysis, especially when proximity to high-emissions industries is a substantial contributor to cumulative cancer risk.

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