The EPA began a study in 2014 called the National Air Toxics Assessment.
The study evaluates chemical emissions in all areas of the country and makes an assessment of the overall risk of cancer for each locality based on the presence of those chemicals. The chemicals are known carcinogens that are used or have been used in various industries and released into the environment, fun things like tetrachloroethane and trichlorophenol.
The study gives an estimate of how many people per 1 million in a given area would get cancer if they lived there. The (relatively) safe range is considered to be under 100 in 1 million. If you look at their handy GIS mapping tool you’ll find that much of the coasts and the south falls into the 25-50 in 1 million range while if you live farther north you enjoy a 6-25 in 1 million chance of getting cancer.
In addition, they have data on there that tells you the level of hazard in your area for other maladies unrelated to cancer. These are respiratory, neurological, liver, kidney and immunological issues among other things. This data is conveniently tucked away in some very large spreadsheets.
The top five compiled here are mostly in this position due to the heavy release of a compound called Ethylene Oxide EtO. The chemical is commonly used in the production of other chemicals as well as in the sterilization of medical devices and it is also extremely toxic. In 2016 the EPA introduced revised estimates that raised the risk of cancer from exposure to EtO by 60x.
Let’s get down to it though. The top five places to live in the USA if you want to get cancer*.
#1 St. John The Baptist Parish, Louisiana
Coming in at number one is St. John The Baptist parish. In some areas of this parish you have a 1505 in 1 million chance of getting cancer. That’s 15x more than the 100 in 1 million where the EPA draws the “bad” line.
Located in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans this area is home to fun places to visit like the Belle Terre Country Club. While you’re there you can check out the nearby LaPlace Oil and Gas Field or the Bonnet Carre Oil and Gas Field.
The EPA data is divided by FIPS codes that section off the named counties into smaller more easily organized areas. This means that St. John The Baptist is actually made up of a dozen different FIPS codes all of which appear in the top 50 FIPS codes on the list when sorted by Total Cancer Risk.
#2 St. Charles Parish, Louisiana
It’s probably not a coincidence that St. Charles parish is the next door neighbor of St. John The Baptish Parish. You have an 808 in 1 million chance of getting cancer in some areas of St. Charles parish. Those areas appear to border the ironically named Good Hope Oil and Gas Field.
#3 Lehigh County, Pennsylvania
Taking a break from Louisiana we head over to Pennsylvania and Lehigh county. Among other cities Lehigh county encompasses Allentown, made famous by Billy Joel in his eponymous song and also includes the town of Bethlehem where the Bethlehem Steel Corporation was founded. Though Bethlehem Steel ceased operations in 1995, heavy industry and pollution continue as in some areas of Lehigh county you have a 596 in 1 million chance of getting cancer.
#4 Kanawha County, West Virginia
Encompassing Charleston, the state capital of West Virginia, Kanawha county also has areas where you have a 366 in 1 million chance of getting cancer. A Union Carbide plant has been labeled as responsible for releasing Ethylene Dioxide across the area and even had a 2019 class action suit brought against them over the issue. Union Carbide is most famous for being the cause of the Bhopal disaster.
#5 Harris County, Texas
Harris County comes in fifth with a 348 in 1 million chance of you getting cancer in some areas. Though it seems that state regulators in 2019 were considering raising the acceptable levels of exposure to Ethylene Oxide so they might be moving up the list.
Note: The EPA released an update in 2018 indicating that some of the affected areas noted above had some pollution sources either mitigated or removed, but it’s quite likely that this is not the case according to this article from the Intercept.
*The EPA data is divided up by FIPS codes, which uniquely identify certain geographic areas. These areas can divide named counties into smaller areas, we’ve taken the first named counties on the cancer risk by source group sheet after sorting by total cancer risk to obtain the data used here.