Living in proximity to superfund sites may lower life expectancy

New research suggests that residing in close proximity to a hazardous waste or superfund site may lower life expectancy by a year.

The study, published in Nature communications, is the first national examination of superfund sites in the US, looking far beyond the 1,300 federal government listed national priority sites. It comprises 65,226 census tracts from the 2018 census.

The US currently accommodates a rogues’ gallery of thousands of superfund sites – contaminated sites that exbibit peril to the environment and human health, caused in areas where hazardous waste has been abandoned and poorly managed, such as processing plants, landfills, manufacturing facilities and mining sites. Notable examples of these sites are the valley of the drums and love canal, which received considerable notoriety in the 1970’s after their potential risks were made aware publicly.

The current average life expectancy in the US is 78.7 years, with the analysis shockingly demonstrating that this is decreased by two months for the population who live near a superfund site, which increases to 15 months when amalgamated with the high disadvantage of sociodemographic factors like age, sex marital status, and income.

Furthermore, previous studies have confirmed that people living close to these perilous sites display a more significant sociodemographic disadvantage, with millions of children sadly being raised in less than a mile radius from a federally designated superfund site.

Hanadi S. Rifai, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Houston, said: “We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities. Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighbouring tracts with no sites.”

Of course, life expectancy is the most rudimentary indicator of public health; however, it can have considerable impacts on the populace, with a mere 1% increase in life expectancy increasing the population by 1.7% to 2%. For this study, the researchers conducted a nationwide geocoded statistical modelling analysis of Superfund sites’ presence, considering their flood potential and the impacts of sociodemographic determents on life expectancy, making it the most meticulous study to date.

The study divulged that the negative effects of living close to a superfund site were greater in areas with higher sociodemographic disadvantages, utilising the data of 12,717 census tracts with a minimum of one superfund site to conclude this. A harrowing example of this was a census tract with a smaller median income than $52,580 that was estimated to have a life expectancy reduced by as much a seven months.

Additionally, superfund sites are believed to be culpable for devastating illnesses such as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; the Texas State Department of Health Services recently conducted a study of a cancer cluster near a former railroad creosote treatment facility in downtown Houston, finding that the rates of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia were far greater than the state average.

A further worry for disseminating toxic contaminants is flooding, which could greatly expand the influence of superfund sites beyond their area of residence.

Rifai said: “When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate. The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations.”

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