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Cancer Risk From St. Louis Air Pollution Highest In Poor Black Neighborhoods

An illustration of pollution, 2017
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
An analysis of federal air quality data showed that people living in predominantly black neighborhoods with high levels of poverty have five times the exposure to carcinogenic air pollution than white middle-class neighborhoods in the St. Louis region.

Predominantly black neighborhoods in the St. Louis region where poor people live have a much higher exposure to carcinogenic air pollution than white middle-class neighborhoods, according to a study from Washington University. 

Researchers analyzed the Environmental Protection Agency’s data on risk of cancer from air pollutants, like ozone, among census tracts in the St. Louis metropolitan area. In the journal Environmental Research, scientists reported that the risk was five times higher for census tracts that had mostly black residents and high levels of poverty than for areas with white middle-class residents.

The researchers expected to find that racial and economic disparities were a factor, said Christine Ekenga, the study's author.

“We did not expect it to be as strong as it was for these two factors,” said Ekenga, a public health professor at Washington University’s Brown School.

The cancer-risk hot spots in the study included most of north St. Louis, north St. Louis County suburbs like Bridgeton and Hazelwood, and East St. Louis.

Ekenga noted that the census tracts with the highest levels of exposure tended to be along Interstate 64 and Interstate 70. Most of the pollution came from car, truck and other vehicles' emissions.

Black residents in St. Louis have long experienced poorer air quality and higher rates of asthma than white residents, noted a recent report on environmental racism from the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic. 

Replacing diesel-fueled vehicles with electric ones and protecting fuel economy standards would help improve air quality, said John Hickey, director of the Missouri Sierra Club and a contributor to the environmental racism report. 

“The report shows we have a real public health problem; it’s impacting low-income African Amercian neighborhoods. It doesn’t have to be like that,” Hickey said. “We have the tools, and we know the solutions.” 

Bi-State Development is expected to vote this Friday on whether it should purchase 12 electric public-transit buses. 

Ekenga and researchers from the study recommend that St. Louis adopt policies that reduce segregation, such as promoting mixed-income housing and rental vouchers, to address racial and economic disparities in air pollution. Such efforts could draw more affluent residents who will advocate for a cleaner environment, Ekenga said. 

“You may attract residents who are more likely to be politically engaged, and as a result, this can lead to residents who are more engaged in decisions about how we use land-use policy,” she said. 

Hickey wants to see someone from St. Louis on the Missouri Air Conservation Commission, a governor-appointed body that decides on statewide air-quality policies. The seven-person commission has two empty seats open. 

“There’s nobody on that commission that is standing up for the people in St. Louis who are breathing the worst air and seeing the most asthma and seeing their children have asthma.” 

Ekenga plans to investigate the causes of air pollution in those areas.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.