Nav: Home

Egregious emissions

May 18, 2020

Call them "super polluters" -- the handful of industrial facilities that emit unusually high levels of toxic chemical pollution year after year. There are only a few of them, but together they account for the majority of annual industrial pollution.

Such is the key finding and major takeaway from a new paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

"This pattern had previously been identified in one industry at one point in time, but the pushback was, 'Well, that's an exception.' What we showed is that it's not the exception, it's the rule," said co-lead author and environmental sociologist Simone Pulver, of UC Santa Barbara.

The study by Pulver and Mary Collins of State University New York, Syracuse, is the first to establish disproportionality in the production of toxic pollution both across a wide range of industries and over an extended period of time.

The researchers examined U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, spanning the years 1998 to 2012, on toxic releases from more than 25,000 facilities in 322 manufacturing industries.

The results are striking.

"The more you compare like facilities, the more you see a handful of facilities are accounting for the majority of the toxic pollution emitted in one year from that industry," said Pulver, an associate professor of environmental studies. "It's a consistent pattern across a wide range of industries. It's an egregious pattern because it's really extreme, and it's an incredibly stable pattern over time."

Said lead author Collins, "Not all polluters are the same, even those who seem like they should be, because they operate in the same industry, produce similar goods, et cetera. Instead, a small group generate much more harm than the rest. This finding is not entirely new, but with Simone and our two graduate students (Dustin Hill and Ben Manski), we show that this is widely true across industries and time."

The research has significant implications for the regulation of toxic pollution and suggests that major reductions to pollution could be achieved by focusing on a relatively small number of facilities doing the most polluting.

As Collins explained, "there are a handful of facilities that alone generate more than 50 percent of their entire industry's emissions." Of the more than 25,000 facilities analyzed, 1,116 can be characterized as egregious polluters, defined as single facilities that generated 50% or more of the total annual hazard within an industry.

"But it's complicated," Pulver noted. Making it so, among other complexities, is that it's not always the same facilities each year doing the egregious polluting. Of the group of super polluting facilities, the researchers noted, only 31 facilities are "consistently egregious polluters within their industries throughout the study period."

In their study, Collins and Pulver looked at more than 300 industries that reported toxic emissions, had more than five facilities reporting emissions each year and had data about their employees, overall providing a solid characterization of the U.S. manufacturing sector.

The researchers were careful to compare things as similar as possible, such as facilities making the same product and with access to the same technology, and to control for facility size.

Finding that "the generation of environmental harm is not distributed equally across units but rather concentrated within a small group of egregious actors," their results challenge the presumption of proportionality between economic activity and environmental harm.

"Even with all the controls -- the same business done in the same way -- you see this real inequality," Pulver said. "A lot of facilities are not producing much toxic pollution at all to make their product, while a small handful are producing a whole lot of toxic pollution to do the exact same thing."

"You expect inequality when you look at the economy as a whole -- there are more resource intensive businesses, things are not evenly distributed in nature, and so on," she continued. "But that's why I find this pattern so surprising. We expected to see some of it but not for it to be this extensive."

Some interesting details: The highest level of disproportionality uncovered by the researchers was in the "All Other Basic Inorganic Chemical Manufacturing" category; the lowest was in industrial mold manufacturing. The biggest increase in inequality, over the course of the study, occurred in bitumous coal underground mining.

Taken altogether, the findings have both scholarly and policy implications for the nature of pollution generation, for the role of targeting in environmental regulatory decision-making and for efforts by environmental advocates, according to the authors.

"There are some facilities where there are real opportunities for learning and improvements to bring them in line with other facilities in their industries," Pulver said. "There is a standard that's possible in terms of damage to environment, and that standard is demonstrated by a vast majority of facilities. Here is an opportunity to get that handful of facilities up to that standard."

Although this paper is the first to empirically document this disproportionality across a wide range of industries and across time, the notion that this pattern may exist was posited in 2005 by another UC Santa Barbara environmental sociologist, Bill Freudenburg, Collins' dissertation advisors and Pulver's mentors.

"His was the first paper that put this idea on the map," Pulver said. "So there is a long, great history of this research here at UC Santa Barbara."

University of California - Santa Barbara

Related Pollution Articles:

Exploring the neurological impact of air pollution
Air pollution has become a fact of modern life, with a majority of the global population facing chronic exposure.
Plastic pollution reaching the Antarctic
Food wrapping, fishing gear and plastic waste continue to reach the Antarctic.
Health impacts of pollution upon indigenous peoples
A new study from the University of Helsinki presents the current state of knowledge on the exposure and vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples to environmental pollution, reviewing the innumerable impacts that pollution poses on Indigenous communities from all over the world.
Spotting air pollution with satellites, better than ever before
Researchers from Duke University have devised a method for estimating the air quality over a small patch of land using nothing but satellite imagery and weather conditions.
A friendlier way to deal with nitrate pollution
Learning from nature, scientists from the Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan and the Korean Basic Science Institute (KBSI) have found a catalyst that efficiently transforms nitrate into nitrite -- an environmentally important reaction -- without requiring high temperature or acidity, and now have identified the mechanism that makes this efficiency possible.
The world faces an air pollution 'pandemic'
Air pollution is responsible for shortening people's lives worldwide on a scale far greater than wars and other forms of violence, parasitic and insect-born diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and smoking, according to a study published in Cardiovascular Research.
Airborne pollution associated with more severe rhinitis symptoms
A team of scientists from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a research institute supported by 'la Caixa,' has discovered that the nasal symptoms of rhinitis are more severe in people exposed to higher levels of outdoor air pollution.
Air pollution in childhood linked to schizophrenia
Children who grow up in areas with heavy air pollution have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.
Air pollution can worsen bone health
A new study by the CHAI Project with over 3,700 people in India associates air pollution with a higher risk to develop osteoporosis.
Combatting air pollution with nature
Air pollution is composed of particles and gases that can have negative impacts on both the environment and human health.
More Pollution News and Pollution Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at