Air pollution hits St. Louis’ poorer areas hard, study shows

ST. LOUIS (AP) — St. Louisans living in poor, segregated neighborhoods are at a greater risk of cancer from air contaminants, and proximity to congested traffic accounts for a significant share of that vulnerability, according to a study from Washington University.

Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor of public health at the university and the study’s lead author, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the pollutants that conferred the greatest dangers were traffic-related.

“The closer a neighborhood was to a major interstate highway, the more elevated their risk was,” she added. “African-American neighborhoods were more likely to be in these hot-spot areas.”

The findings support the university’s other recent research that details how St. Louis is plagued by inequalities. The city’s racial divide makes it one of the most segregated in the U.S. and contributes to differing outcomes across a wide range of environmental health concerns, from asthma rates to lead exposure and inadequate access to healthy food.

Elevated cancer risk from air contaminants could be included on that list, according to the new study.

Published in late October in the journal Environmental Research, the findings are based on modeled estimates of concentrations for 180 chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency says are either known to cause cancer, or suspected to cause cancer. The model factors in such things as industrial emissions and traffic, and also measures lifetime cancer risk if someone were to live in the same neighborhood — or specifically, census tract — for 70 years.

The regional study suggests that 14 percent of St. Louis-area census tracts have heightened cancer risk linked to air pollutants. Danger is especially great in areas with high levels of both racial and economic isolation — where people are less likely to interact with someone of a different race or economic status.

Ekenga said the findings also underscored that broader changes must take place and that those in positions of power must do more to account for the interests of underprivileged residents.

“These are communities that are economically disenfranchised and environmentally disenfranchised, and what this means is they’re not involved in conversations about land use,” Ekenga said. “We need to seek their input, and when they provide their input, we need to listen to them.”

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