The United States Of Toxins


Every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires most large industrial facilities to report the volume of toxic chemicals they release into the environment. 

The EPA takes this data and consolidates it into the Toxic Releases Inventory (TRI), which is then used to set environmental policies in place.

We analyzed this data along with Priceonomics customer, Ode, a company that creates environmentally-conscious cleaning products. So, we got interested in the information buried in these massive, hard to understand reports. What are the most commonly released toxins? In which states and cities are the most chemicals emitted? Which industries contribute the most to this pollution?

Summary of findings:

  • As a state, Alaska produces the most toxins (834 million pounds)
  • Zinc and lead compounds (common products of the mining industry) are the most common toxins
  • Metal mining accounts for 1.5 billion pounds of toxins, while chemicals (515 million) ranks second
  • On a county level, the Northwest Arctic of Alaska leads the list, but multiple Nevada counties round out the top 5
  • Kotzebue, AK produces the most toxins as a city (756 million pounds), and Indianapolis, IN (10.9 million) produces the most out of the top 100 most populous cities

A note on methodology

For this analysis, we looked at the EPA’s most recent TRI report, looking at data from 2016.

This includes data reported from more than 18,000 facilities across the U.S., spanning major industries like manufacturing, mining, chemicals, and utilities. It includes total releases (in pounds) of roughly 650 different toxins which are determined to have a significant adverse effect of humans and/or the environment. And in this report, “release” means that a chemical was “emitted to the air or water, or placed in some type of land disposal.”

More information about the report and the methodology used by the EPA can be founds here.

The United States of Toxins

We began by tallying total toxin releases by state. This includes all toxins across all industries. In the map below, darker colors indicate a higher total volume of toxins (in pounds).

Original source: Ode

On the mainland, we can see that Nevada and Utah facilities are especially detrimental to the environment -- but a strip of states in the Rust Belt (Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio), along with Texas and Louisiana, are also major players.

Alaska, though, handily outranks every other state by nearly 3x.

Original source: Ode

A closer look, at a county level, reveals that 91% of Alaska’s toxin releases come from one county: Northwest Arctic, AK:

Original source: Ode

In fact, taking this one step further, we see that nearly all of these toxins originate from one city: Kotzebue, AK -- a tiny town that is home to 7,500 people.

Original source: Ode

Why? Just 90 miles from Kotzebue is Red Dog Mine, the largest source of zinc in the world, and a significant source of America’s lead. In operation since 1987, the mine is estimated to contain 77.5 million tons of zinc, lead, and silver -- and each year, its activities release 756 million pounds of toxins into the environment.

But these county and city lists have other stories to tell.

Three of the top 5 cities -- Humboldt, Lander, and Eureka -- are in Nevada. All are known to contain multiple, active gold mines that collectively release hundreds of millions of pounds of toxins.

The 50 most populous cities

It’s likely you haven’t heard of a lot of the cities on these lists -- and that’s because most of the major industrial facilities in the U.S. are set up outside the limits of most major cities, far from large populations.

So, let’s take a look just at the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. (according the Census data). The list below is sorted by population size.

Original source: Ode

Interestingly, you’ll see that two of the largest cities in the U.S. -- New York and San Francisco -- have no data listed. Only certain “qualifying” facilities are required to submit data (those that release over a certain threshold of particular toxins), so we hypothesize that this is either because: A) These cities don't have qualifying facilities within city limits, since real estate is so valuable there, or B) The facilities that exist there just don't meet the minimum emissions required to report data.

In any case, of the 50 most populous cities, Indianapolis, IN leads the pack with 10.9 million pounds. The city has long been cited for its poor air quality, a result of steel mills, auto plants, and numerous coal-powered power plants that spew out arsenic, lead, and mercury at alarming rates.

But some of these cities are bigger than others, so it makes sense that they’d produce more toxins. Sticking with the 100 most populous cities, let’s look at toxins per square mile.

Original source: Ode

Baton Rouge, Louisiana tops the list here, partly thanks to Exxon Mobile’s massive oil refinery there -- the second largest in the country, and one of dozens of plants that skirt the outer limits of the city.

Henderson, Nevada, which ranks second here, was once a wastewater dump that took 18 years and more than 500,000 environmental tests to get building approval for.

Per capita, we see the same cities top the list, with a few extra additions (Cleveland, Wichita).

Original source: Ode

The biggest aggressors

Looking over the lists above, you’ll notice that most of the top cities and counties are in areas known for mining. It comes as no surprise then, that mining is the industry responsible for the highest percentage of toxins released in the United States.

Original source: Ode

At 1.52 billion pounds, metal mining produces triple the next category, the broadly-defined “chemicals,” which includes such toxins as sulfuric acid, propylene, and sodium carbonate. (The EPA exhaustively lists its industry classifications here).

Electric utilities (368 million pounds), paper (170 million), and hazardous waste (146 million) also contribute large amounts of toxins industry-wide.

But how does this break down on a more specific scale?

Original source: Ode

Zinc compounds (739 million pounds), and lead compounds (650 million) -- both products of mining -- dominate the list of top individual toxins released. Nitrate compounds, which are a common byproduct of fertilizers and human excrement, rank in at 193 million pounds, and another water pollutant, Ammonia (163 million), also ranks high.

Certain companies, we find, are also largely to blame for mass percentages of the toxins released in the United States.

Original source: Ode

Metal mining corporations dominate this list, but we also see a number of larger holding corps here (Koch Industries, Berkshire Hathaway), as well as government operations (U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Tennessee Valley Authority).

*  *  *

Collectively, industries in the United States released more than 3.54 billion pounds of toxins into the environment in 2016. That’s the equivalent weight of about 25.3 million American adults -- or roughly 8% of the entire U.S. population. Nearly half of all Americans live in a county with unhealthy levels of air pollution, and 46% of America's lakes are too polluted to fish or swim in.


auricle Richard Chesler Thu, 10/26/2017 - 00:44 Permalink

Think what kind of mining would occur if gold/silver were monetary metals again? They'd be strip mining the entire earth, oceans included. Perhaps bitcoin is better with its synthetic scarcity. Although it is terribly expensive with regard to electric used to mine coins. Would love to see a chart on how many giga watts are being consumed to mine coins. 

In reply to by Richard Chesler

fbazzrea auricle Thu, 10/26/2017 - 01:10 Permalink

something like this?"According to Digiconomist, Bitcoin and Ethereum mining taken together consume more power than countries like Jordan, Iceland, and Syria, with the two combined ranking 71st among all countries. This is based on Ethereum mining consuming 4.69 terawatt-hours (TWh) of power and Bitcoin mining consuming 14.54 TWh."… 

In reply to by auricle

MisterMousePotato Bes Thu, 10/26/2017 - 05:01 Permalink

I actually live in one of the cities on that list.Doing a little quickie calculation of my own, I am proud to announce that my town "releases into the environment" just about 52,000 pounds per resident, which puts us, I think, well into the lead per capita.Well, you know? There's something wrong or misleading about this article. As I said, I live here. I know appearances can be deceiving, but you would be very hard pressed to find a more beautiful and apparently pristine environment.People who grew up here tell me that this was not always the case, but now I'm being coy. Sorry. Miners built shacks from materials pilfered from the mines. Many lacked modern conveniences, such as running water, plumbing, etc. What to do about the do-do? Easy. Build the outhouse suspended above the creek. It was, I am told, common practice, and there are photographs that support this.But ... in 2016? I lived here then, and the outhouses over the creeks, bordellos, gambling establishments, and unchecked pollution from mines and other industries have for decades been confined to history books.Fellow at my church just retired from the mine here. He was a high level manager there. He has no reason to be deceitful, and the couple times our conversation has turned to the subject, he gets a little agitated and tells me that the water the mine puts into the river is cleaner than the river water itself. No, that wasn't always the case, but now? I believe him. And, no, I don't think they would have done this without the heavy hand of the EPA. And I do disagree with him that if one is going to err in such matters, it is better to err on the side of caution, I think. (Anyone else remember those photographs of pollution in China from a few years back?)Anyway, all I wanted to say is that, from personal experience, I know that at least one of the places on that list of cities looks absolutely nothing like the impression one might form if you've never been here. Moreover, I believe this may be a case where perception is reality.

In reply to by Bes

fbazzrea MisterMousePotato Thu, 10/26/2017 - 21:14 Permalink

14.54 TWh = 14,540,000,000 kWh @ $0.11/kwh = $159,940,000 annual electric bill.that's just reference to your appearances being deceitful about polluting, i suspect there are a few commercial sources of pollution, which are obviously well-hidden, but nonetheless are poisoning your environment.according to the info, Corpus Christi ranks high among polluted cities and it appears pristine. there must be hidden sources polluting directly into the Gulf of Mexico in addition to the refineries pumping airborne particulates into the air carried inland by the gulf breeze.

In reply to by MisterMousePotato

MisterMousePotato fbazzrea Fri, 10/27/2017 - 03:54 Permalink

Thanks. $160 million isn't actually all that unreasonable in light of Bitcoin's market cap of - what? - $100 billion?As to hidden sources of pollution in my town, you gotta understand that there's only 300 people who live here. Nothing hidden here. Let me tell you a story:I have to pay the city four dollars a month, payable quarterly, for sewer. I decide to do so in person while borrowing their chimney brush. I hand Counter Chick 12 bucks, and she asks me if I want a receipt. I say sure, and she fills one out.I ask her how she knows my name and address. She looks at me funny and says, "Everyone knows who you are. You're Henry's dad.""Henry" is my dog.

In reply to by fbazzrea

fbazzrea MisterMousePotato Fri, 10/27/2017 - 11:50 Permalink

lol sounds similar to my town. we have 1500 peeps tho. you know what they say about small towns?"ain't much to see but what ya hear sure makes up for it." lol what's most concerning to me about the cryptos' energy consumption is that it will only continue to escalate as distributed ledger technology proliferates while global energy costs will soar with possibly extended blackouts. it just seems a damn shame so much energy must be wasted on blockchain technology because our govts, institutions and businesses are untrustworthy. in some ways, DLT is regressive. hope it all works out. 

In reply to by MisterMousePotato

Michael Musashi GUS100CORRINA Thu, 10/26/2017 - 01:38 Permalink

The States map is LOL! For example, there are no bubbles around South Carolina nor in California, so folks shouldn't look at this map and think, "Yippee, my State is awesome!"In any event, I've been all over the world, and lived in many different countries, one thing is for sure, the USA has some of the bluest skies and cleanest air I've ever seen. Trump did that!!!!!Trump 2020!!!!!!!!!!

In reply to by GUS100CORRINA

1033eruth BandGap Thu, 10/26/2017 - 07:36 Permalink

Exactly, it BS because 99.99% of america don't know anything about mining  To claim that the toxicity is released into the environment is complete rubbish.  Once upon a time before EPA and amazing amounts of rules, regs, OSHA and all the rest mining companies would extract the ore, then smelt it and there would be no filters, virtually no method for preventing some of the toxicity (lead) from floating away in the wind from the stacks.  There is one valley in Montana that is notorious for how contaminated the valley was and everybody that lived in that valley died an early death.  But those days are LOOOOOOOOONG gone.  Yes, they have tailings piles, massive, but unless you go there and play in that "sandbox", you're not exposed to it.  End of story.  There is no other purpose to the BS story than to fearmonger.However, you do have the occasional accident where the EPA will somehow allow tailings into a freakin' river and destroy it.  My personal belief is we don't need to mine metals anymore (excluding lithium and certain others)  Why?  We've got enough scrap laying around the nation to rebuild america from scratch.  There are more junk cars than you can possibly imagine.  Of course thanks to Uncle Fraud, they make it difficult as hell to get them scrapped unless you have a "title".  

In reply to by BandGap

Bwana MegaOlmecanManiac Thu, 10/26/2017 - 18:03 Permalink

Kotzebue is a large, for where it is, village on the north west part of Alaska. I have been there and never saw any polution that would rise to the level stated in this article. Hower there is the Red Dog Mine about 100+ miles to the northeast that may have some polution but to the best of my knowledge there is no significant polution in Kotzebue other than the honey pots that thaw in the spring. 

In reply to by MegaOlmecanManiac

Pol Pot Wed, 10/25/2017 - 23:13 Permalink

I say bull to this data....Washington DC by far produces the most toxic waste of endless supply of bullshit that everyone has to wade through from sea to shining sea....

pizdowitz Wed, 10/25/2017 - 23:35 Permalink

Zinc compounds are toxic???? What a bullshit....Try this from Wiki:Zinc is an essential trace element for humans[148][149] and other animals,[150] for plants[98] and for microorganisms.[151] Zinc is found in nearly 100 specific enzymes[152] (other sources[153] say 300), serves as structural ions in transcription factors and is stored and transferred in metallothioneins.[154] It is "typically the second most abundant transition metal in organisms" after iron and it is the only metal which appears in all enzyme classes.[98]Don't' forget those toxic zinc-plated (galvanized) water pipes, or even more toxic "raw untreated" copper pipes in every US house. Immediate death on contact!FYI: Perfectly non-toxic hydrogen compound, called water, can also be "toxic". Drink a gallon of water, and you 'll die 

DivisionBell pizdowitz Thu, 10/26/2017 - 01:01 Permalink

You won't fall over dead from exposure overnight, but zinc is toxic.  The biological function is trace amounts only.It's also another reason that Reagan replacing copper pennies with copper-plated zinc in 1982 was foolish.This article doesn't mention what the toxins are.. they could very likely be the zinc and lead products, not even a byproduct of the mining op.  Metaline Falls, Washington is another large Zinc/Lead mine that has contaminated most of the water in the area.  You can't sink a well there and drink the water.  

In reply to by pizdowitz

RabbitChow pizdowitz Thu, 10/26/2017 - 08:34 Permalink

Part of the reason for these types of articles is that the US EPA was required to set limits of exposure to EVERYTHING that is produced as either a product of effluent.  Heavy metals like cadmium were so 'dangerous' that the classic wire-nut (used in electrical connections) could no longer be used, and in the cases of copper to aluminum connections, was no longer available, resulting in a lot of electrical fires from electricians who thought they were using standard wire nuts with the old cadmium sping wire inside.The EPA set standards for lead exposure, leading to the removal of lead additives from gasoline.  Canada turned to using DMT, a manganese-based antiknock compound in their unleaded gas, for 40 years or more.  The EPA in the US says nope to DMT use because it would expose people to manganese.The US EPA also set standards on water quality.  The water was so pure, (and it gets acidic when it is pure) that the naturally-formed copper salts lining inside copper pipes was gradually washed away, and once that happened, the copper metal itself washed away.  In more damp areas, copper pipe now forms an electrogalvanic response with the ground, and copper pipe develops pinholes, leading to water leakage and pipe breaks.  There's lots more, but the draconian bans that EPA has have pretty much done more harm than good.  There is a reason that people are more likely to get rid of the EPA, because it is a government agency whose actions now endanger people's livelihoods.  It's one thing to mandate cleanup of hazardous spills, but to take the attitude of everything-is-banned-unless-we-say-it's-okay is quite another.  The EPA used to have good scientists working there, but since they got their agenda, science went down the drain, and the environmentalist and tree-hugger types hire contractors who will produce results that support EPA environmentalist agendas and governmnent control.

In reply to by pizdowitz

Silver Savior Wed, 10/25/2017 - 23:32 Permalink

Like it matters at this point. All people care about is infinite growth on a finite planet. They can make plastic out of the CO2 in the air though. That's kinda cool. I can also find scrap lead on the beaches at an old Mill site they used to just dump everything in the ocean. Garbage dump beach is kinda cool too. Can find old coins down there!

historian40 Wed, 10/25/2017 - 23:33 Permalink

Why are Canadians poisoning us?  More than double the next company down, which is British and Australian.The multi-national corps are eating us.  I guess we should be glad they're just poisoning us slowly, instead of sending in the US mercenaries to do it fast.

Rex Andrus Thu, 10/26/2017 - 00:24 Permalink

EPA, statistics, libtards, math teacher teachers who hate anybody who can do math. Hillary lost. get over it. Better think twice about scamming taxpayers with this shit because the DNC is sorely in need of patsies.

RabbitChow Wilcox1 Thu, 10/26/2017 - 08:06 Permalink

Yup, I thought ZHers would be kinder to this type of article.  Where's all the gold and silver stackers? Thet gold doesn't find itself, you know.  Maybe NYers are a bigger cause of all that gold mining than they want to think about.  Gotta have that gold.  Who cares where it comes from.  NIMBY is okay.

In reply to by Wilcox1