Cancer Belt in Texas: Why is a Region of the US Known that Way?

Environmental pollution, generated by plastics and chemical production plants, is causing a health crisis in Texas and other US states. We tell you about this cancer belt.

Woman in laboratory taking samples

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LatinAmerican Post | María Fernanda Ramírez Ramos

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Leer en español: Cinturón del cáncer en Texas: ¿Por qué se conoce así a una región de EE.UU?

The "cancer belt" is an expression used to describe a region of the state of Texas, United States, which has a significant presence of chemical industries and plastic producers, which cause high pollution in the environment. It is also a region where a higher incidence of cancer cases has been observed. Thus, it has been hypothesized that pollution from the presence of the chemical industry and factories in this region is related to higher rates of cancer and other diseases.

Various communities, journalists, human rights activists, and environmentalists denounced the situation, and although they have had victories in their fight, the problem continues to be alarming. Diane Wilson, a winner of the 2023 Goldman Prize, known as the "Nobel for the environment," precisely earned her recognition for her work in this area. His most significant accomplishment has been winning a legal case against Formosa Plastics, one of the world's largest petrochemical companies, for illegally dumping toxic plastic waste on the Texas Gulf Coast.

We recommend you read: Meet the winners of the Goldman 2023 prize, the environmental "nobel"

What is the Situation in the Cancer Belt in Texas?

Texas is the largest chemical-producing state in the United States. It is known for hosting many industrial facilities, including oil refineries, chemical plants, and factories related to the production of plastics. According to the Goldman Prize: "46 petrochemical plants are operating in the region, the highest concentration in the country, constituting 42% of US petrochemical capacity."

And although it is a highly profitable industry in economic terms, it is leaving a very high cost to life. The practices of these industries cause extreme air and water pollution, which has affected the population's health for years. Contaminants include benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, dioxins, and many other cancer-causing chemicals.

An analysis conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project in 2021 found that five Texas refineries polluted above the federal limit for benzene, violating Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. These are severe findings, as benzene is a known carcinogen. "Short-term exposure to benzene can cause headaches, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, as well as damage to the immune and blood systems. Long-term exposure can cause blood disorders and increase the risk of leukemia," the report states.

This report is just a sample of how companies circumvent the regulations of environmental authorities or health departments. Thus, the measures appear insufficient to protect the population's health and the non-human life that inhabits the area.

However, benzene is not the only concern. There are dozens of chemicals constantly released into the environment, polluting it. Another big problem is plastic waste. It is estimated that around 400 million tons of plastics are produced worldwide every year. These generate tiny residues known as nurdles. "An estimated 230,000 tons of nurdles enter the world's oceans annually due to spills and discharges from petrochemical facilities," according to the Goldman Prize. And those microplastics, once again, are having harmful effects on the health of people and the health of ecosystems.

On the other hand, an extensive investigation by Texas Monthly delved into the seemingly silent human tragedy in the cancer belt. According to the data collected, there have been deaths from leukemia on average 3 or 4 times higher than expected by statistics in cities like Port Neches-Groves. In addition, he points out that although the cancer data in Texas is not the highest in the country, the figures are revealing if you look at the Gulf (which is the area that is part of the belt).

However, it can be challenging to demonstrate the relationship between the presence of plants with the development of diseases in the community and to hold companies accountable so that, to some extent, they repair and rectify their actions. This is why cases like Diane Wilson's are so striking. "The $50 million settlement is the largest award in a civil lawsuit against an industrial polluter in the history of the US Clean Water Act," the Goldman Prize highlights in this regard.

The Environmental Justice Atlas has documented different environmental conflicts in Texas, mainly concerning pollution. Their data indicates that Calhoun County ranked the number one place in the nation for toxics and that Lavaca Bay has high mercury contamination. Likewise, in Pehingle Mountain, Dallas, Texas, there was a toxic waste management area, which became a symbol of the fight against environmental racism.

Why is there Talk of Environmental Racism in the United States?

Communities located near chemical industries and factories are often low-income communities of mixed race. These communities may face disproportionate exposure to pollutants and toxic chemicals. Thus, in the United States, it is common for there to be racist zoning that leads to the concentration of dangerous facilities near racialized communities, mainly African Americans and Latinos.

This raises concerns about environmental justice and inequality in the distribution of risks and benefits. Particularly in Texas, there is a high concentration of migrants from various countries who cross the Mexican border (border with Texas) to enter the United States. Thus, some settlements are known as "colonies" where families live. However, they need help accessing essential services, such as water. In this way, they are even more exposed to the polluted waters of the area and with a greater risk of suffering from diseases, which have a more significant impact on children and women. At the same time, these people often do not have health insurance.

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