Living Around Toxic Superfund Sites Reduces Life Expectancy, Especially Among Poor: Study

A new study highlights the potential risks associated with living near “Superfund” hazardous waste sites, indicating that area residents may have a shorter life expectancy, with individuals living in areas with lower income brackets potentially losing 15 months after their life.

Researchers from the University of Houston indicate that much more attention should be paid to the effect of hazardous waste and so-called “Superfund” sites, particularly since the poor are often forced to live in such areas and generally have a lower life expectancy. Their findings were published last week in the journal Nature Communications, suggesting living near Superfund sites is associated with a lower life expectancy, and that lowered expectancy is exacerbated if the person is poor.

Superfund sites are designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as hazardous locations due to waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed. There are thousands of these sites throughout the United States.

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The name comes from the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which set up funding for the EPA to clean up such sites, which became known as the Superfund program.

Researchers used date from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) database and census data to conduct statistical modeling of the Superfund and life expectancy relationship, matching techniques of treated and untreated populations, random machine learning algorithms, identified the most vulnerable populations, and other methods.

According to the findings, overall life expectancy is reduced by two months for those who live near Superfund sites. However, for low-income subjects living near the sites, the reduction in life expectancy reached 15 months; more than a year.

The researchers speculate that low income families tend to live closer to the sites, which decreases their overall life expectancy further than someone who is in a higher income bracket, whose housing is typically farther from the site. Insurance and higher education levels were similarly found to be linked to an income issue, because those with higher incomes did have access to better health care and educational opportunities, which placed them in safer positions away from the sites.

The study also researched how flooding can spread the contaminants from Superfund sites and cleaning operations. Researchers determined a site that is not being cleaned up, not on a National Priorities List (NPL) site, and prone to flooding to be the worst characteristics possible, followed by sociodemographic issues.

The researchers overall found ties to sociodemographic disadvantages and living near a non-cleaned, non-NPL sites prone to flooding will cause the worst loss to life expectancy.

“The effect modification analysis revealed that out of 12,717 census tracts with at least one Superfund site, the adverse effect of this presence was more severe on the ones with higher sociodemographic disadvantage,” the researchers concluded. “This reduction could go as high as 1.223 years for tracts in the lower 10% percentile income.”


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