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Surrounded by Refineries, Chemical Plants and Toxic Waste: How One California Town Became So Forsaken

The people of Richmond live within a ring of five oil refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites, dozens of toxic waste sites, highways, rail yards and ports.

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Combustion byproducts such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, were found at higher levels inside Richmond homes than in Bolinas homes. Fine particulates exceeded California’s annual air quality standard in nearly half of Richmond homes.

Vanadium can irritate the upper respiratory tract lungs, eyes and skin and lead to chronic bronchitis. Sulfates can be inhaled deep into the lungs. Some PAHs are potent carcinogens, and they have been linked to neurological effects, such as reduced IQs, in children exposed in the womb.

"We found that living near an oil refinery adds exposures that may be hazardous to your health,” said Julia Brody, the study’s lead author and executive director of the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. “Toxic pollution from oil refineries doesn’t stay outside; it seeps into homes, where people spend most of their time.”

Standing in her yard in Atchison Village, a World War II Richmond housing development, Sylvia Hopkins looks out on the pink tanks of the Chevron refinery less than two miles away. She let scientists monitor her home in the indoor-outdoor study just to find out what she was breathing.

“Why do we live here?” she asks rhetorically. “Poor people live here. People don't move here if they have a lot of money. That's the way it is in industrial towns."

Poor and minority families such as Henry Clark’s have been pushed into the path of pollution in Richmond for 100 years, says Clark, who founded the West County Toxics Coalition. So if there is any justice, he said, Richmond shouldn’t bear any new toxic burdens for the next 100.

“We already are disproportionately affected. We’re talking about not adding fuel to the fire.”


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