This story was originally published by ProPublica.
The world’s largest chemical maker, BASF, produces ingredients for America’s most popular products, from soaps to surface cleaners to dishwasher detergent. Emissions from their U.S. plants elevate cancer risks for an estimated 1.5 million people.
Hollie Walker cherished the simplicity of her life in White Stone, South Carolina, a tiny community on the outskirts of Spartanburg. In the quiet of the country, she and her husband raised their two sons in a yellow house on 37 acres of secluded land, where they hiked in the woods and swam in their lake. Today, the area is home to a one-room post office, two churches, and a shooting range open three days a week. For years in the 1990s, Walker worked behind the counter at the post office.
There used to be a bar called the White Stone Mall on the same stretch of highway, where Walker would sip beers, shoot pool and chat with workers getting off their shifts from a chemical plant across the street. She didn’t know much about the German-owned company, BASF, that operated the plant. After BASF expanded its site in the 2000’s, demolishing the bar in the process, she had little reason to stop along that highway, except when the railroad gates halted traffic.
The passing trains carried tank cars of chemicals bound for White Stone’s BASF plant, a fleeting moment in an epic multi-state journey during which BASF transforms natural gas into specialized, secretive compounds that are the building blocks of ubiquitous cleaning products. BASF isn’t a household name like Procter & Gamble, but the ingredients it creates are essential to the success of that company’s products, allowing dirt stains to be lifted from clothes and egg yolk to be washed off plates.
The long, winding path from shale rock to the kitchen cabinet contributes to massive sales for BASF, the world’s largest chemical maker. But for the company’s neighbors, the journey leaves behind a trail of toxic pollution that has placed hundreds of thousands of people — including Walker — in harm’s way.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aspires to minimize the number of people exposed to emissions that increase excess cancer risk above 1 in 1 million. That risk level means that if 1 million people in an area were exposed to toxic air pollutants over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least one case of cancer on top of those from risks people already face. But a ProPublica analysis found that the EPA effectively allows two dozen BASF plants nationwide to expose an estimated 1.5 million Americans to elevated cancer risks greater than 1 in 1 million. EPA rules also say that plants should never expose people to an additional lifetime cancer risk that exceeds 1 in 10,000. Yet an estimated 2,800 people who live near BASF plants around the country face risks at least that high because of the company’s emissions, according to our analysis. Our analysis is based
on an EPA screening tool that uses data reported by companies such as BASF. It cannot be used to assess the cause of individual cancer cases, but can identify geographic areas
of potential concern.
BASF’s footprint of cancer-causing air pollution is larger than that of any other foreign-owned company in the U.S. and is the fourth-largest toxic footprint among all companies operating in this country, according to our analysis.
Bob Nelson, a spokesperson for BASF, declined to answer ProPublica’s questions about its chemical manufacturing and its emission of cancer-causing air pollutants. In a statement, he said that the “safety and well-being of employees, contractors, neighbors, and their families is the foundation of all we do.” Procter & Gamble spokesperson Maytal Levi, who declined to answer our questions, said in a statement that the company expects its “suppliers and business partners to uphold high standards that include consideration for the health and wellbeing of the communities where they operate.” Continue Reading…