February 4th of each year is World Cancer Day. For the last two years, activists have focused on equity in cancer treatment and closing the care gap. Worldwide, most cancer deaths come from low-income countries. Even in developed countries like the USA, low-income and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by cancer1.
Many cancer cases and deaths can be prevented through early detection and good treatment. However, not only does equitable healthcare need to be addressed, but also the infrastructural problems that allow risks of cancer among low-income and minority communities to be high in the first place.
The Global Fight
Low-income and minority communities are often disproportionally affected by oil and gas development.
Recently, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published reports on the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry’s invasion of southeast Texas and the aptly named “Cancer Alley” in southern Louisiana.
The communities most affected by pollution-spewing companies in both states are majority Black, Hispanic, and/or low-income. In the Lousiana St. James Parish, oil and gas facilities have been exclusively placed in majority-Black districts over the last 46 years2.
One 57-year-old woman, Angie Roberts, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, claims to feel much older than she is. She has already had breast cancer once and has developed the autoimmune disorder, Multiple Sclerosis (MS has been linked to petrochemical emissions). Her son works temporarily in a nearby petrochemical plant, which came to the area years after the family had already bought their house. They keep their blinds drawn because the view of the billowing industrial sites just reminds them of the fact that they can’t move. No one would want to buy their house for enough money to give them a chance at moving somewhere else2.
In Houston a lack of zoning regulations allows industrial facilities to be placed near residential areas, where the populations are majority-Black/Hispanic. According to Amnesty International, “The average life expectancy in some affected neighborhoods is up to 20 years lower than in majority white communities just 15 miles away.”3
According to the reports, a cocktail of chemicals is sent into the air, water, and land daily due to oil production and storage, fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing, and petrochemical production (the separation of natural gas into benzene, prothelyne, methanol, etc)2.
Benzene is often released through waterways or during flaring (releasing excess gas, rather than containing it) and is a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical). According to the EPA and World Health Organization, there are no safe exposure levels or routes of Benzene2. Because Benzene can be inhaled or ingested, after which it enters the bloodstream, Leukemia is the most common form of cancer linked to chronic Benzene exposure. Ambient exposure levels can cause a myriad of short-term health effects, like drowsiness, dizziness, and headaches, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation.2,4
The Local Fight
While many of the largest environmental injustices are occurring in Texas and Louisiana, the oil and gas industry’s unjust polluting is not just a problem for the Deep South. Here in Colorado, we too face unjust polluting measures from oil and gas companies. In Commerce City, in Northern Denver, the Suncor oil refinery reportedly releases more unplanned pollution and has more frequent malfunctions than comparable oil refineries across the country5. Such shutdowns, like the multiple in December 2023 and January 2024 through the cold freezes cause the company to unexpectedly release Hydrogen Sulfide, Carbon Monoxide, and Sulfur Dioxide, the amounts of which often override their permitted allowances6.
Hydrogen Sulfide, in low chronic amounts, can cause respiratory and eye irritation, headaches and dizziness. In one study, hydrogen sulfide exposure was linked to elevated rates of nasal cancers7,8.
While Carbon Monoxide and Sulfur Dioxide are not human carcinogens, exposure can cause respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
Suncor releases up to 3.5 million gallons of polluted water daily into Sand Creek. Contaminated groundwater from the Suncor property also has the potential to leak into the Burlington Ditch, for which it does not have a permit. The Burlington Ditch originally flows from Barr Lake State Park before making it into Commerce City, where shortly after the Suncor industrial site, it flows directly into the South Platte River and through parks and residential areas. In May 2023 the containment area overflowed during a storm and released toxic water into the ditch4.
Most commonly reported in Suncor’s water waste are Benzene and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are used to make Fluropolymere coatings and water-, heat-, oil-, and stain-resistant products2. These chemicals are ingested through food or water and build up in the body because their compounds do not decompose. The EPA says that while research on the health effects is rapidly developing, they can cause cancer in the kidneys, prostate and testicles, among other health problems like lowering women’s fertility and creating developmental delays in children4.
It’s no surprise that these egregious pollution events are taking place in the marginalized, majority Hispanic/low-income Commerce City Neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea.
If that doesn’t hit close to home, what does is finding out that both of these waterways supply drinking water and water for agriculture to the northeast, Commerce City and Thornton4. It’s tough to realize that we are exposed to the pollutants Suncor is releasing no matter where we live in Colorado.
In Fort Collins in 2021, an oil and gas site was found to have been illegally venting volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)13, which can include Benzene, for years. After many residential complaints and four previous state-level enforcement actions, the site was ordered to “cease and desist” in August 20229 but the order only lasted for three months!
VOCs are part of the reason why northern Colorado has some of the highest ozone levels in the country. This is due to our state’s inversion-causing geography and the concentrated oil and gas industry activity in the Front Range, especially in Weld County. The American Lung Association says ozone pollution causes breathing disorders, lung cancer, and also contributes to pre-term births and low birth weights as well as heart attacks and strokes10.
Again in October 2023, a produced water injection line was reported to have a leaky connection. Produced water is the wastewater that returns to the surface after fracking. It can include radium, arsenic, hydrocarbons, and other remains of chemicals that were injected into the well to aid in the oil extraction process. Many of the added chemicals are carcinogenic and radium and arsenic are known human carcinogens11.
World Cancer Day activists have a lot to go up against this year. Statistically, the people facing the most damaging effects of the fossil fuel industry are low-income and facing many barriers to good health care12. Cancer is truly a systemic issue, which needs to be prioritized and addressed by policymakers from the bottom up. Only then can we have the hope of enjoying a cancer-free world for everyone.
- Human Rights Watch “We’re Dying Here” Report
- Amnesty International “The Cost of Doing Bussiness” Report
- ‘“Forever chemicals” flowing from Suncor into Sand Creek spike as Colorado weighs renewal of key water-quality permit” By Noelle Phillips
- Suncor has more pollution problems than similar U.S. refineries, new EPA report finds By Sam Brasch
- Suncor’s Commerce City refinery reported more than a dozen pollutant-spewing malfunctions since December By Noelle Phillips
- https://doi.org/10.1080/00039890109604063 By Marvin S. Legator , Chantele R. Singleton , Debra L. Morris & Donna L. Philips
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9563687/ By M N Bates 1, N Garrett, B Graham, D Read
- Footage of Prospect Energy’s Illegal Emissions By Andrew Klooster