Much of the empirical work on environmental justice centers on the geographic distribution of potential chronic health risks (e.g., planned toxic releases or treatment storage and disposal facilities). Far less attention has been devoted to the geographic distribution of acute health risks that cause immediate harm. The purpose of this work is to examine environmental justice in terms of potential acute health risks by examining the distribution of serious chemical accidents across diverse subpopulations.
We draw upon 1990 census data for the United States to study the relationship between the racial, ethnic, and economic characteristics of census block groups (N = 226,398) and the presence or absence of chemical accidents that caused at least one injury, death, or evacuation for the time period of 1990-1996. The data used to map the location of the chemical accidents were obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency's Accidental Release Information Program (ARIP) database.
Our results indicate that the acute risk associated with chemical accidents at fixed facilities is greater for individuals living in low-income census block groups, especially when comparisons are made within the counties where the chemical accidents occur. Our results concerning race and ethnicity are less consistent and somewhat weaker.
Although these results do not show large and dramatic effects, as have often been found in the study of the social distribution of chronic environmental risk, they do stand as one of a relatively few social analyses of social variation in exposure to acute environmental risk.