'We're inhaling poison': Minorities in the Triangle more likely to live near hazardous facilities

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- When you step out of your home, what do you smell? Fresh air, toxins or trash? The smell really depends on where you live but, if you're near a toxic site, you could be exposed to health hazards every day.

"On a day to day basis, there's a waste smell. It's like a sewage smell," said Crystal Primus, a southeast Raleigh resident.

Not only does Primus have to worry about the safety of her children in the community she lives in. A recent drive-by shooting happened. She's also concerned about an invisible threat, the air they breathe.

"I don't like to leave them in the front yard anymore, by themselves," said Primus.

Primus lives within steps of this wastewater plant and is just a few miles from a yard waste site. The smell is a constant reminder of why she can't open her windows. Moving out isn't an option either.

"The smell stinks ... I want to open it up for fresh air, not a foul odor," said Primus. "Are we inhaling any kind of toxins or anything that could cause cancer later in life? I've thought about that."

It's a concern that many of the neighbors told ABC11 once we started working on this story.

In Durham and Chapel Hill, Hispanic people are nearly three times as likely to live in a neighborhood near hazardous facilities, while blacks are more than twice as likely.

The data shows 13 percent of white people live in a neighborhood where facilities have been deemed high risk, 29 percent of black people and 35 percent of Hispanic people.

In Raleigh and Cary, there's not much of a disparity. The data shows nine percent of white people live in a neighborhood where facilities have been deemed high risk. Fifteen percent of Black and Hispanic people live there.

The largest disparity occurs in Johnston County, which is known to have a large population of farmworkers. The data shows while 43 percent of black people live near hazardous facilities, 34 percent of Hispanics live in these areas too. Environmental justice activists call pollution from these sites a silent killer.

"Every time we inhale that stench, we're inhaling pollution and particle poison. Those particles build up in your system and that system creates impacts on your immunity," said La'Meshia Whittington with Advance Carolina, an organization that works to educate marginalized communities on environmental injustices. "The law, policy and how it supports corporations allows for our communities to be used as dumping grounds. You can actually use census data. When we talk about get counted for the census. If you're not counted, they can use that...corporations can say there's no one on the census in this community, which means no one lives here."

Health experts say exposure to these harsh chemicals can cause irritation right away.

"The most common example I use is when you're at the beach lounging in the surf and you don't notice a wave coming at you. It goes right up your nose. That salt water isn't hazardous, but it's irritating to your gums, lips, the insides of your nose and airway," said WakeMed pulmonologist Dr. Matthew Bruehl.

According to Bruehl, long-term exposure can lead to a variety of health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease and heart attacks. It's worse for children, people with pre-existing health conditions, and smokers who are double exposed.

"When you combine the two exposures together: cigarette smoking and air pollution, the effects are compounded," said Bruehl

While these harmful compounds are not visible to the naked eye, health officials say most people inhale these toxins every day.

"We're so close to these chemical plants and no one seems to care," said Primus.
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