In a recent study, Forbes magazine rated the Atlanta metropolitan area as the most toxic metropolitan area in the country. It beat Detroit, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which all followed Atlanta closely in the ranking, for the top spot on Forbes’ list.
Environmental activists lay the blame on weak environmental regulations.
Beyond the image of belching smokestacks, all of these most toxic cities suffer from a host of less obvious environmental threats. Toxins can leech into the soil and ground water from old chemical spills or defunct steel mills. More toxins may leak or be expelled invisibly from industrial complexes, either accidentally or as a matter of business practice. These toxins also often find their way into the water supply.
“We struggle to have strong environmental leadership. For a lot of the chemicals people reported dumping, there are alternatives we should be helping them switch to,” said Jenette Gayer, Environment Georgia policy advocate, in an interview with Forbes.
In this case, high population density may prove to be a blessing in disguise. New York, largest city in the country, did not make the top twenty on Forbes’ list. Unlike sprawling metropolitan centers like Atlanta or Los Angeles, New York has highly efficient systems in place to serve and protect its large, tightly packed population. The subway system, for example, which moves people in high volume with relatively little pollution compared to areas which rely primarily on cars for commuting.
Other cities, like Portland Ore, have been able to avoid the worst of air pollution problems through conscious efforts on the part of city planners. The city has been working for decades to curb urban sprawl, and yet still ranked higher than half the cities surveyed as a result of past development and uncontrolled growth. These current policies are a response to that era.
Once a city has become polluted to such toxic levels, it is neither easy nor cheap to clean up the area and introduce new, greener alternatives to the systems already in place.
Forbes also cited the city’s outlying suburbs as partly to blame for its high toxicity. Suburban cities such as Sandy Springs and Marietta may be major contributors, since both towns contain chemical factories, cement factories, and metal coaters. Environmental change will have to extend to these areas as well, rather than focusing on Atlanta alone.
The Forbes study looked at the nations forty largest metropolitan areas, and according to the magazine, rankings were calculated based on a number of statistics. They counted the number of facilities releasing toxins into the air, the total pounds of certain chemicals released into the environment, the number of days a year where air pollution levels rose above healthy levels, and the number of federally designated clean up sites within the area.
Forbes said of Atlanta, “you’ll find southern gentility, a world-class music scene–and 21,000 tons of environmental waste. In spite of its charms, the city’s combination of air pollution, contaminated land and atmospheric chemicals makes it the most toxic city in the country.”