SUNY-ESF professor's research links pollution to low socio-economic communities

Assistant professor Mary Collins' research tracked more than 16,000 US factories and their pollutants.

Research published in January by a SUNY-ESF professor linked extreme toxic pollution to minority and low socio-economic communities — and in turn added to the conversation of environmental justice at SUNY-ESF.

In the beginning of 2014, Mary Collins, assistant professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, began a project dedicated to studying community contamination. Her research followed some 16,000 factories, which she refers to as pollutants. Collins also tracked these pollutants' release of different toxic emissions.

This connection between pollution and economics has interested Collins since her time as a Ph.D. candidate, and her research also focused on super pollutants. These "hyper-polluter" factories are understood to be chemical outliers, as they emit substances like arsenic, benzene and calcium and are generally based in non-white poor neighborhoods, and are extremely toxic.

After eight or nine months of research, Collins found that 1,600 of the 16,000 pollutants she looked at were hyper-polluters. 10 percent of the polluters were 90 percent of the problem, she said. Her research, completed with a grant from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“I’ve seen some traction in regard to the general philosophy that industrial pollution is created by a small group,” Collins said. “This [research] is helpful to take a large part of industrial pollution and break it down.”

Her research shows that not only is a tiny group of pollutants responsible for the most pollution, but also that there is a link between communities with high minority and low socio-economic status and said pollutants. One of those communities can be found close to SUNY-ESF and downtown Syracuse itself.

Out of the largest metropolitan cities in the United States, the city of Syracuse has the highest rate of concentrated extreme poverty among Hispanics and Blacks, according to a 2015 study of poverty in America. While this fact makes the community of Syracuse a likely candidate to be affected by super polluters, Collins said her research focuses on how toxic pollutants effect communities on a larger, nationwide scale.

This graphic demonstrates how Collins used US Census data to calculate population density in areas of high pollution. (Mary Collins, Environmental Research Letters)

“Right now we talk about things like water pollution in Flint and stuff right in our backyard. It’s not just pockets of extreme poverty like in Syracuse,” Collins said. “You can probably find these stories all over the country. The research is pointing to this conclusion.”

Seeking environmental justice creates a way to put concrete numbers on many societal issues — like lack of clean water and extreme poverty — in the United States, said Benjamin Taylor, vice president of SUNY-ESF’s Undergraduate Student Association.

“It’s cool that [Collins] looked at maximum polluters, but the conclusion doesn’t surprise me,” Taylor said. “It goes along with the socio-economical inequality we have in this country.”

Taylor said that environmental justice is a topic discussed frequently within SUNY-ESF. In Syracuse, he said there is certainly an issue with socio-economic and racial divides on either side of Interstate 81. An example he gives of this divide is the Syracuse University Steam Station that is located across from Syracuse University, on the other side of I-81. The station is near low-income housing in the downtown community of Syracuse.

“[Environmental injustice] is real and something we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to,” Taylor said. “It’s an issue that comes up more and more. It’s just something we’ve got to talk about.”

Norman Bergey, president of SUNY-ESF’s Graduate Student Association, agreed that environmental justice has become a more prevalent topic in the school's discussions. As the college continues to update its strategic plan, he said it is looking into adding more environmental efforts.

“It’s something we need to consider more as we go forward, Bergey said. “I think that ESF should be doing more, in that it will be doing more with the strategic plan.”

As the school builds up its focus on environmental justice, Bergey said he assumes SUNY-ESF will see a high volume of interested students. Because of the school body's hands-on nature, he said it would not surprise him if they studied parts of Syracuse for experiential learning.

Bergey said that students already learn at SUNY-ESF to take parts of what they learn in class and use it in their communities. Students also learn to fix environmental problems in ways that have as little adverse affects on people as possible.

“If we really want to be a truly well-rounded environmental school, [environmental justice] has to be something we offer to our students, and [we have to] find a way to immerse that in the courses as well,” Bergey said.

Although SUNY-ESF's Undergraduate Student Association (USA) has spent a large portion of this academic year focusing on becoming more aware of the diversity on campus, Margaret Foley, president of USA, said she wishes the school as a whole focused more on socio-economic status — an identity that Collins’ research specifically addresses.

There are students on campus who are care deeply about socio-economic status and the effects it has on the community, Foley said. The Baobab Society was a specific example that came to her mind — the culturally-conscious organization community focuses on education on and interaction with the greater Syracuse community.

“There are students doing [outreach] in our community because we need it,” Foley said. “I’m really glad we have people who can make these connections in science and in our community.”

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.