Not all pollutants are created equal, nor do they necessarily hang out in the same hot spots. Rankings of the most polluted cities — you know who you are — have become depressingly familiar. But those standings almost always represent a statistical stew of assorted toxins in the air and water, averaged together. The list that follows may surprise you: A quick look at a handful of cities, each with the unfortunate distinction of being the worst in the U.S. for a specific environmental health hazard.
While the Los Angeles metro area is synonymous with dangerous smog – and LA is, in fact, the leader in ozone pollution – it is actually Bakersfield, California that has the nation's worst overall air quality, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report. An inland city between LA and Fresno, this "gateway to the Central Valley" defies the stereotype of dirty, urban air; rural Bakersfield is a major agricultural center.
A combination of factors pushed Bakersfield into the #1 spot. Like LA, it, too, suffers from ozone pollution. Ozone is a necessary component of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, where it shields the planet from the sun’s more harmful rays. However, when ozone collects at ground level, it can interrupt photosynthesis in plants and cause detrimental health effects in humans. When breathed in, ozone and other components of smog irritate the respiratory system, and can cause asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks, and other cardiopulmonary problems that may result in premature death.
Air pollution has long been a problem in California because of geographical and weather conditions that allow the pollution to hang over the regions, rather than dispersing. The Golden State’s much-renowned sunshine actually exacerbates the problem, reacting with car exhaust and other pollutants to create ozone molecules, helping to make California home to the six worst U.S. cities for ozone pollution.
Of course, ozone is not the only environmental problem Bakersfield faces. It also ranks second in year-round particle pollution and first in periodic short-term spikes of particle pollution.
Another pollution frontrunner that is not located in a large city. Libby, Montana, a town of 3,000 residents, is home to the nation's deadliest environmental dangers and the most expensive Superfund clean-up site monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The dangers stem from a nearby vermiculite mine which provided employment for many of the residents. Vermiculite, a component in some types of insulation, is not hazardous in itself, but it is often found in ore deposits along with another mineral – asbestos. Miners who extracted and broke up the rocks containing vermiculite also released tiny asbestos fibers into the air and breathed them into their lungs. Over time, these fibers caused lung scarring, asbestosis, and symptoms of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects the lining of the chest or abdomen.
More than 400 Libby-area residents have died of asbestos-related illnesses, and another 1,500 show lung scarring, which can be a precursor to other serious diseases. The miners were not the only ones at risk. Those who unwittingly brought fibers home on their clothes exposed their families. Some children even played in the soft piles of mining waste, breathing in asbestos dust as they did. Despite the fact that the mine’s owners, the W.R. Grace corporation, knew of the dangers as early as 1964, the mine remained open until 1990. Because mesothelioma symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years after exposure to surface, the residents of Libby may have yet to see the full impact of the mine on the town. Mesothelioma life expectancy is tragically low, with most patients surviving only 9 to 12 months after diagnosis, making asbestos a serious environmental health threat.
America's worst drinking water, according to a compilation of results from a five-year Environmental Working Group report. The EWG looked at percentage of chemicals in the water, the total number of contaminants, and the most dangerous average level of a single pollutant. Topping their list was this panhandle city. Analysts found 45 of the 101 chemicals the study tested for in Pensacola’s water, and 21 of those chemicals exceeded health standards. For comparison, the city with the second worst drinking water – Riverside, California – contained 30 chemicals, 15 of them at unhealthy levels.
Among the worst contaminants in Pensacola’s water were radium-228, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, alpha particles, benzene, and lead. Radium-228 and alpha particles are both dangerous because of their radioactivity. Trichloroethylene is used as an industrial solvent, and tetrachloroethylene is more commonly known as dry cleaning fluid. In addition to these contaminants, the Pensacola drinking water also contained cyanide and chloroform — obvious health hazards — and lead, which can be a natural contaminant, but more often works its way into drinking water through old pipes. Also problematic for Pensacola: benzene, once a gasoline additive, is now used in the making of plastics, rubber, and dyes, and linked to the development of certain types of leukemia.
Jeorse Park Beach, Indiana
The most polluted beach in America in 2010. Few would think of Indiana as a beach state, but where its borders meet Lake Michigan there are several beachfronts that locals take advantage of in the summer. One of these, Jeorse Park Beach I near East Chicago, ranked as #1. Of 78 water quality tests conducted by the National Resource Defense Council, this beach exceeded pollution standards for human and animal waste 76 percent of the time, more often than any other beach. Not surprisingly, it had to be closed several times in 2010 due to bacterial contamination.
Lake Michigan has long been plagued with pollution problems. Nearby steel mills from several states dump waste in the lake, and a BP oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, reportedly discharges raw sludge into the lake on a regular basis. Though protesters in 2007 managed to extract a promise from BP that it would not expand and hence dump more waste, as of 2010, expansion was proceeding as originally planned. Though the company still insists it will keep its promise, the pledge is unenforceable, since BP has a permit to increase waste production and get rid of it in the lake.
Photo of the highly toxic Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana by grabadonut
Krista Peterson is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida and an aspiring writer. As a health and safety advocate, she shares her passion for the wellness of our communities.