Study: Air Pollution is Deadly

Study: Air Pollution is Deadly

A study recently published in the journal PLOS Medicine confirms what we already know: air pollution is hazardous to human health. Specifically, the authors found that fine particulate matter was responsible for more than 30,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2015, lowering national life expectancy by approximately 0.15 years. 

What is fine particulate matter?

Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5), or particle pollution, includes microscopic droplets of solids and liquids that are suspended in the air. It is emitted from industry, power plants, transportation, and other sources. These particles are very harmful to health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When a person inhales particulate matter, it can lodge deep in the lungs and contribute to major respiratory illnesses. Fine particulate matter can also get in the circulatory system and wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system.

What did they study? 

The team of researchers used “vital registration and population data,” nationally and at the county level, from 1999 to 2015 (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Their data included information about sex, age, and underlying cause of death, and county of residence. The authors looked at per capita income, community poverty levels, race, education, smoking rates, and weather data as well. They used this information to model mortality and life expectancy loss due to exposure to PM2.5 and deaths due to cardiorespiratory diseases. They were also able to estimate benefits of pollution reductions since 1999. 

What did they find?

It should come as no surprise that fine particulate matter concentrations declined from 1999 to 2015 as a result of more stringent air quality standards. Life expectancy increased during the same period as well. The researchers found that even though concentrations had declined, PM2.5 emissions still resulted in thousands of deaths in 2015 — 15,612 deaths in women and 14,757 in men.  

The greatest life expectancy loss was in the Los Angeles area and in Southern states (i.e., Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama). The researchers found greater impacts in counties with lower income and higher poverty compared with wealthier counties, as well as disproportionate meaning air pollution has a disproportionate impact on poor communities. In other words, research continues to show that not only is air pollution deadly but it impacts economically and racially disadvantaged communities more.

The American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air report ranked Jefferson County, Ala., as the 14th worst in the U.S. for year-round particle pollution.

Flawed Consent Decree Fails Local Communities Impacted by ABC Coke’s Illegal Pollution

Flawed Consent Decree Fails Local Communities Impacted by ABC Coke’s Illegal Pollution

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Conservation groups are charging that a proposed consent decree is woefully inadequate in addressing the impacts of ABC Coke’s excessive and illegal levels of toxic pollution on local communities around northeast Birmingham and Tarrant, Ala.

On behalf of Gasp, the Southern Environmental Law Center has filed comments in an effort to strengthen the requirements set out by the consent decree entered into by the Jefferson County Board of Health (JCBH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the Drummond Company regarding ABC Coke’s violations of regulations that prevent benzene pollution. The members of the JCBH are tasked with governing the Jefferson County Department of Health, which is responsible for regulating ABC Coke.

Under the proposed decree announced in February, Drummond has agreed to pay $775,000 in penalties, with $387,500 each going to the JCBH and to EPA. The consent decree also requires Drummond to take steps to stop the unlawful emissions, more than eight years after inspectors discovered that the plant was emitting excess amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen.

In the comments, Gasp and SELC are charging that the proposal lacks essential safeguards to ensure that the violations have stopped and that the public will be able to identify and enforce future violations. The groups are advocating for an increase in penalties, an independent audit of benzene levels, additional public reporting requirements, and for the Jefferson County Department of Health to establish a trust for area residents for which a third party with community-ties would administer.

“If the Jefferson County Department of Health is truly committed to transparency with the public as it claims, taking long overdue steps to restore assurances that it will act in the community’s best interests rather than powerful corporations will require meaningful actions, not just words,” said Gasp Executive Director, Michael Hansen. “At the bare minimum, the community must have a say in how the penalty paid by ABC Coke should be spent—this money should not just go back into the Department’s pocket.”

“After years of violations that the Jefferson County Department of Health has known about and failed to act on, the Board of Health cannot continue to turn a blind eye when it should be holding the Department and ABC Coke’s feet to the fire to permanently address this pollution,” said SELC Senior Attorney, Sarah Stokes. “It is past time for these agencies to be held accountable and to be fully transparent.”

The Jefferson County Health Department has issued ABC Coke’s final Title V permit despite numerous objections from the community and elected officials, and without addressing the benzene violations that are the subject of the consent decree. On behalf of GASP, SELC petitioned EPA to object to the permit last month. EPA has not yet made a decision whether or not to object to the permit.


About Southern Environmental Law Center
For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.

About Gasp
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. We strive to reduce exposure to air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role model by advocating for clean air and clean energy.

‘What’s Up With that Sherman Concrete Plant?’

‘What’s Up With that Sherman Concrete Plant?’

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about Sherman Industries relocating one of its concrete batch plants from Five Points South to Five Points West. This news broke after the company requested an air pollution permit from the Jefferson County Department of Health on April 14. Around the same time it was revealed that the Southside site was proposed to be rezoned for a mixed-use development by Birmingham POD, LLC, which Bham Now reports is connect to a Denver company called Residential Ventures.

Residents requested a public hearing from the Department of Health on the air pollution permit and also urged City Council to exercise its authority to re-zone the property in Five Points West as specified in the Community’s 2015 Western Area Framework Plan. The Department of Health will hold a public hearing on June 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the Birmingham Crossplex.

We’ve been getting tons of questions about this from the media, residents, and leaders. So we thought it would be a good idea to answer a few of the most common questions we’ve been getting.

What is a concrete batch plant?

Concrete is made from water, cement, and aggregate (such as sand, crushed stone, slag, fly ash). A batch plant — or batching plant — is just the name of a facility where those ingredients are combined to make concrete.

What’s the main air pollution concern with a concrete plant?

The primary pollutant of concern is particulate matter, or PM. Also called particle pollution, PM is made up of tiny solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. PM comes in many different shapes and sizes and can include everything from acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, and metals, to microscopic bits of soil, pollen, and dust.

Concrete batch plants have a reputation for creating significant amounts of fugitive dust, which consists of tiny crushed up bits of things like sand, silica, aggregate, cement, and metals. Fugitive dust is not emitted from the manufacturing process itself but is rather distributed into the air through other means. In other words, it’s not what you would see coming out of a smoke stack, but instead what you’d see blowing around the property — hence the term “fugitive.” According to the EPA, fugitive dust accounts for 92% of the coarse particle pollution (PM10) in the United States.

What’s a “minor source permit”?

A typical concrete batch plant in the United States has to obtain what is called a “minor source permit” for its air emissions. In Jefferson County, those permits are issued by the health department. Under the Clean Air Act, facilities that emit more than 100 tons per year of any single criteria air pollutant (such as particle pollution), more than 10 tons per year of a single air toxic, or more than 25 tons per year of any combination of air toxics have to get a “major source permit.” Sherman Industries’ plants do not meet those thresholds but do have emissions; therefore, they must get is a minor source permit.

Where does fugitive dust come from?

Some of the most common sources of fugitive dust at concrete batch plants include transfer of the aggregate material to the site; truck and/or equipment loading; aggregate storage piles; and traffic to, from, and near the site.

Does a “minor source permit” mean there’s nothing to worry about?

Air pollution is leading environmental risk factor for premature death and disease in the world. Because particulate matter is microscopic, it can be inhaled into your lungs and can negatively affect the heart, lung and even brain health. Research has shown that particle pollution is linked to neurological diseases like dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and multiple sclerosis. It also stunts the cognitive development of children and can permanently damage the brain. Exposure to air pollution is linked to stroke, heart disease and other cardiovascular health issues. As little as 15 minutes of exposure to particle pollution can result in an increase in blood pressure. Finally, The most obvious symptoms of air pollution exposure come from the respiratory system. Asthma, COPD, lung cancer, and numerous other lung diseases are known to be directlly linked to breathing dirty air. There is no safe level of exposure to particle pollution. 

Who is the most at risk?

In general, the people most at risk to the harmful effects of air pollution are children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with preexisting health troubles like asthma, COPD, and diabetes. In addition to those vulnerable groups, research has consistently shown that people of color and low-income families are disproportionately burdened by air pollution. In fact, Birmingham ranks in the top 15 urban areas with the largest disparity in air pollution exposure between whites and nonwhites, placing an undue burden on poor communities and people of color. Clean, healthy air is a right, and one’s skin color or socioeconomic status shouldn’t determine their opportunity to live a healthy life.

What can I do?

Attend the Department of Health hearing on June 6 mentioned above and voice your concerns about Sherman’s draft air permit. Talk to your City Councilor about what they’re doing to proactively prevent things like this from happening again, especially without consulting with the community first. If you’re opposed to the re-location, call Sherman and ask them to consider a different location not in the heart of a densely populated residential area.

By the way, how do I report air pollution concerns in Birmingham?

Whether you see a plume of smoke or smell something, you should always report that instance of air pollution. If you have air pollution concerns in your community and you live in Jefferson County, this is how to get those complaints on the record:

  1. If you see air pollution (for example, a plume of black smoke) take pictures. Not only is this evidence of the problem, but it helps identify the type of pollution and source of the problem you’re dealing with.
  2. Submit a complaint to the regulatory agency. In Jefferson County, you report air pollution to the Department of Health (JCDH). When you submit your complaint, be very specific. Include the date and time you noticed the air pollution. If you experienced a smell, describe it as best you can. (For example, did it smell like tar or rotten eggs?) The best ways to report pollution to JCDH are:
    • Call 205.930.1276 or 205.930.1230
    • If you have a picture, email it with your complaint to: [email protected]
  3. After you report the pollution to JCDH, tell us. We will do our best to help you investigate and solve these issues. Share your complaint with us by calling 205.701.4272 or emailing Haley Lewis at [email protected]. You can also share your complaint at

Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

Groups Sue Trump’s EPA for Coke Oven Cancer Pollution

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 15, 2019) — Today Earthjustice on behalf of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Gasp, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Sierra Club, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for improperly regulating coke ovens – producers of known carcinogens – thus failing to protect communities throughout the country. Over a decade ago, EPA found that carcinogenic emissions from coke ovens destroy air quality and cause devastating health complications, yet plaintiffs in the case argue the agency failed to act to protect nearby communities from this threat.

“The pollutants spewed by coke ovens cause cancer and other serious illnesses. Fourteen years ago today, EPA admitted that it couldn’t say whether its own regulations adequately protected people from this threat and promised to do something about it. Since that day, EPA hasn’t taken a single step to fulfill its promise. It’s long past time for EPA to do its job and protect people in places like Birmingham, Ala., Clairton, and Erie, Pa., and St. James Parish, La.,” said Earthjustice Attorney Tosh Sagar.

“EPA determined years ago that coke ovens produce known carcinogens and that millions of residents in nearby towns and cities breath these carcinogens in. This is just one in a long litany of EPA’s failure. It’s time EPA does its job to review and revise standards for coke ovens in order to protect these people and meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” said the plaintiffs in a joint statement.

Coke ovens used usually for iron making superheat coal producing more than 40 highly toxic air pollutants – including benzene, arsenic, and lead – that escape poorly-sealed oven doors every time coal is added to bake or coke is removed from an oven. These poisonous gases not only cause breathing problems but are also known carcinogens that threaten nearby residential communities.

In 2005, EPA issued regulations for emissions from coke oven batteries. But these regulations didn’t address many of the points in the coke oven plants that are responsible for significant emissions. Even worse, EPA itself recognized that it could not know whether the 2005 regulations adequately protect people from these carcinogenic gases.

EPA promised to address this problem, but 14 years have passed and EPA has done nothing. In just the last few years, EPA admitted in federal court that it similarly failed to review and update standards for more than 40 other sources of hazardous air pollutants. Thus, EPA’s failure to review and revise standards for coke ovens is just one example of its disregard for using the Clean Air Act to protect communities. This lawsuit aims to enforce the Clean Air Act by requiring EPA to properly regulate coke oven facilities that produce known carcinogens.

Examples of the Impact of Coke Facilities:

  • U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in Allegheny County is the largest coke plant in the country and decidedly has the greatest impact on deteriorating air quality in western Pennsylvania. Decades of consent orders, multi-millions of dollars in fines paid, and more recently, tougher enforcement by regulators have not resulted in Clairton operating in a manner protective of air quality. “Forcing EPA to finally set standards for these emissions will go a long way to protecting people living near coking facilities like Clairton in western Pennsylvania and across the country,” said PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo.
  • In Birmingham, there are two coke plants less than two miles from each other within low-income, overwhelmingly African-American communities. One of the two plants, Drummond Company’s, ABC Coke, is the largest merchant producer of foundry coke in the United States. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the company would be fined $775,000 for violating the Clean Air Act. The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America ranks Birmingham in the top 10 in its Asthma Capitals report.
  • The residents of the St. James Parish, La., already experience some of the highest cancer rates in the nation and Nucor plans to add to their burden by building a new, massive coke oven plant. If EPA reviewed and updated these standards, Nucor would have to build this plant using the most-up-to-date pollution controls. But if EPA doesn’t act fast to review the standards, the residents of St. James parish will be subjected to carcinogenic gases as a result of Nucor’s old, dirty technology for decades to come. “Nucor made the decision to put its polluting facility in the middle of a historic black community, and now that community is bearing the brunt of its pollution and the government’s failure of oversight. It’s long past time for the law to be enforced,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. 



Tosh Sagar
Earthjustice attorney

Anne Rolfes
Louisiana Bucket Brigade

Michael Hansen

Judy Kelly
Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future

Jane Williams
Sierra Club

Katie’s Corner: My First Month Interning at Gasp

Katie’s Corner: My First Month Interning at Gasp

My name is Katie Causey and I am a junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I am majoring in Biomedical Science with a minor in chemistry. My long-term career goal is to become a physician to improve the quality of human health.

So far working as one of Gasp’s spring interns for 2019 has opened up my eyes on the reality of what poor air quality does to our health. As a pre-med student I have always been concerned about various factors that contribute to our overall well-being, but to be quite honest I have never thought about air pollution from a public health standpoint and what we are exposed to on a daily basis. This semester my main project and focus is to educate the school systems in Jefferson County on what Gasp’s aspirations are, what they stand for, and hopefully implement the amazing programs that they have to offer.

I have had the privilege to talk with some schools about their previous endeavors with Gasp and others about future involvement with Clean Air, Healthy Kids. When I was around the students and listened to their concerns, all I could think was that I wish that I had had this kind of exposure earlier on in my academic career. A couple weeks ago I also had the pleasure of going to a local school to inform them about what exactly the Gasp program entailed and how it would best benefit their school.

As a result of some schools’ dedication to this program, Gasp was able to show the others what they had already accomplished by bringing tangible products of the classroom’s success. I would love to for this to act as as a domino effect and let the involvement of other schools and their achievements speak for itself. I believe that the more the general public is educated on what is happening and what needs to be done, it is one step closer to having exceptional air quality in our great city of Birmingham, Alabama.