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The geography of environmental toxins in the District of Columbia

DC Policy Center – Living in a toxin-free environment is essential to people’s mental and physical health. Being exposed to chemicals from pollution in soil, air, and water has wide ranging health effects including acute asthma symptoms, hormone disruption, decreased mental ability, and cancer. A U.S. national environmental quality index determined that there are over 30 more cases of cancer in counties with poor environmental quality than in counties with the least exposure to toxins in the air, water, and soil (approximately a seven percent increase). In addition to being a health issue, a toxin-free environment is also a quality-of-life issue with equity implications. Across the United States, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental toxins. Facilities using toxic substances that can pollute the soil, air, and water are often located in low-income, non-white neighborhoods. The demographics are similar for neighborhoods containing hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal plants. Additionally, studies have shown that within cities, low-income neighborhoods are exposed to higher levels of air pollution from highways and factories, putting residents at higher risk for acute asthma attacks and other illnesses.

In an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranking of environmental pollution in metropolitan areas in the United States, called the Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI), the District of Columbia ranks 576 out of 2,357 localities. D.C. is a dense urban environment. As such, every ward in the District has some exposure to chemicals that are released by daily activities including personal transportation, household behavior, and commercial activity. However, given the District’s RSEI ranking in the top quartile of counties, we wondered what environmental hazards exist here? Where in the city are these hazards concentrated? What does that mean for the health and health equity of District residents? A survey of the District’s environmental hazards, their locations, and their impacts follows, examining soil contamination, air pollution, and water pollution. Overall, we have found that residents of Wards 4, 5, and 6 are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in the soil, air, and water from sources outside of daily activity…”

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