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A report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force says pollution from the petroleum industry has greater impact on persons of color than on whites. That's because people with dark skin have different genes, says the American Petroleum Institute.

Fossil Fuels

Study: African Americans Have Higher Health Risks From Petroleum Pollution. API: Blacks Have Different Genes

A report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force says pollution from the petroleum industry has greater impact on persons of color than on whites. That’s because people with dark skin have different genes, says the American Petroleum Institute.

When in doubt, blame the victim.

A study conducted by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force finds that African Americans are more likely to suffer from cancer and links that result to living close to oil and gas production facilities. 1 million African Americans live within half a mile of oil and gas operations and another 6.7 million live in counties with refineries.

In the executive summary, the report states, “The life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic, and social hazards. Communities impacted by oil and gas facility operations remain affected due to energy companies’ heavy polluting, low wages for dangerous work, and government lobbying against local interests.” The report continues, “Many African American communities face an elevated risk of cancer due to air toxics emissions from natural gas development. The air in many African American communities violates air quality standards for ozone smog.”

The API Responds

“Pishtosh,” says the  American Petroleum Institute. In the most recent edition of Energy Tomorrow, an online publication of the API, Uni Blake retorts, “I’ve read an NAACP paper released this week that accuses the natural gas and oil industry of emissions that disproportionately burden African American communities. As a scientist, my overall observation is that the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted, within the African American community.”

Blake may be correct. There is no “smoking gun” in the report. But even casual observers will note the similarities between Blake’s response and the dismissive comments made by the tobacco industry for more than two generations when people tried to suggest that breathing billions of puffs of cigarette smoke during a lifetime might not actually be a good thing for the human body.

Genetics, Not Pollution

Let’s call this a draw, shall we? Just another “he said, she said” during the world’s slow journey along the highway to Hell. In today’s culture of, “It’s not a crime if you can’t prove it,” both sides could declare victory and leave the field. But the API just can’t leave well enough alone. Blake takes that fatal next step. “[S]cholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations,” she writes, “such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care.” Yup. Black and brown people have different skin pigmentation than whites which proves they have a different genetic makeup. The fault is not in their stars, dear Brutus, but in themselves.

Blake buttresses her claim by citing a study from 2005 conducted by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and the National Pharmaceutical Council entitled “Ethnic Disparities in the Burden and Treatment of Asthma,” which states, “Household surveys have identified a maternal history or other family history of asthma as a leading risk factor for childhood asthma, highlighting the hereditary component of asthma morbidity… It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the greater burden of asthma among U.S. populations with a significant African ancestry (specifically, the black and Puerto Rican populations)… is somehow related to African genes — or to a combination of African and European genes.”

There it is in black and white (no pun intended). A scientific study that says genetics are responsible for poor health among people of color. Blake, however, commits the cardinal sin of those who cherry pick their quotes to support their positions. She fails to faithfully report the entire quote upon which her argument is founded. “However, most of the evidence to date seems to indicate that the explanation lies elsewhere, in socioeconomic and environmental disparities, in behavioral or cultural differences, and in access to routine health care,” that report concludes.

Shorter Life Expectancy In Louisville

We dealt with precisely this issue recently in a story about a health initiative in Louisville, Kentucky that seeks to lower air pollution in a city surrounded by industrial activities that include several fossil fuel facilities. That plan of action stems in part from research showing that the life expectancy of residents living closest to the source of Louisville’s air pollution live eleven years less than those who reside in other neighborhoods. The ethnic makeup of those poor communities? Predominately people with black or brown skin.

The one factor neither side is talking about is the inverse relationship between poverty and power. Poor people don’t have the political muscle to fight back when industry and governments decide to plunk down another refinery, pipeline, or tank farm in the middle of their community. Often, the siting decision is made based on the knowledge that residents won’t be able to stop it. Lack of power begets abuse by the powerful and invites more of the same.

A Note From A Real Scientist

If Uni Blake wants to put her scientific chops on display, she might find the following article by Kenneth Olden in The Scientist nearly 20 years ago instructive. Entitled “The Complex Interaction Of Poverty, Pollution, Health Status,” Olden’s piece includes this illuminating paragraph:

“While behavioral and lifestyle factors, nutrition, and access to health care services are important contributors to the increased morbidity and mortality among socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, environmental and occupational exposures — over which these individuals have little control — are likely to play a prominent role.  Where one lives and works is less a matter of choice than a result of one’s socioeconomic status. Thus, people in the lower socioeconomic strata are more likely to live in the most hazardous environments and to work in the most hazardous occupations, a fact that would be reflected in greater health risks.” (See original text for citations).

Perhaps Ms. Blake is incapable of searching the scientific literature prior to 2005 or perhaps her scientific training is inhibited in some way by who signs her paycheck. You decide.

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