Toxic Towns

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

One of the neglected issues within green criminology is the examination of what we shall call here toxic towns (White, 2012, 2009). Toxic towns are places where environmental pollution and contamination are so elevated that the local environment has become quite toxic and harmful to human and nonhuman species’ health. In some of these locations, the threat of toxic exposure is so high that the locations are abandoned and populations moved from those sites. Many of these toxic towns, however, remain inhabited despite the threat they pose to health. Following White (2012: 106) a more specific definition of toxic towns is as follows: “Toxic towns are residential areas — small villages, towns, or suburbs of larger cities – that are either located near contaminated physical sites (such as polluted waterways or hazardous landfills) and/or affected by polluted air and water that enter into their specific geographic region.”

In the more general academic literature little direct reference is made to the term toxic towns. Instead, toxic towns and the problems they face are more likely to be examined under headings such as “superfund site” (e.g.s, Faber and Krieg, 2002; Hu, Shine and Wright, 2007; Krieg, 1995; Neuberger et al., 2009, 1990; Spalinger et al., 2007) and toxic (Senier at al., 2008)or contaminated communities (Cable and Benson, 1993; Clapp, 2002; Gunter, Aronoff and Joel, 1999; Robinson, 2002; Seguin et al., 2002). Much of this literature can also be found by searching for specific affected communities such as the Love Canal disaster, or other well-known examples which are noted below and linked to other entries in the dictionary (e.g., the Buffalo Creek Disaster; the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant Coal Ash Spill).

To date, green criminologists have not directed significant attention to the problems of toxic towns, and few references to this issue are evident in the green criminological literature. This is, consequently, an emerging area of research in green criminology which can be explored further.
One of the important concerns toxic towns presents is obviously the extent of the toxic problems they pose. Much of the relevant research, therefore, will be found in scientific research that examines the scope of harm such locations present. Green criminologists can use information about toxic towns to explore a number of relevant concerns such as the definition of green crime in relation to the toxic harms they pose to humans and non-human species or environmental reproduction; the legal response to toxic towns; the remediation of toxic towns; the development of environmental justice movements in local communities in response to toxic town conditions; or the intersection of toxic towns and capitalism and the treadmill of production. As White (2012) noted, a central issue in the study of toxic towns is the process of how residents and official respond to hazards that place communities at risk, and how or whether these contaminated locations receive justice. In this sense, the study of toxic towns also involves placing the problems faced by toxic town residents within the broader environmental justice literature (White, 2012).

Further Reading
Several examples of the problems in toxic towns are found in these related entries in the green criminology dictionary: Picher, Oklahoma
Cable, Sherry, and Michael Benson. 1993. Acting locally: Environmental injustice and the emergence of grass-roots environmental organizations. Social Problems 40, 4: 464-477.

Clapp, Richard W. 2002. Popular epidemiology in three contaminated communities. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 584,1: 35-46.

Faber, Daniel R., and Eric J. Krieg. 2002. Unequal exposure to ecological hazards: environmental injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, Suppl 2: 277-288.

Gunter, Valerie J., Marilyn Aronoff, and Susan Joel. 1999. Toxic Contamination and Communities. The Sociological Quarterly 40, 4: 623-640.

Hu, Howard, James Shine, and Robert O. Wright. 2007. The challenge posed to children’s health by mixtures of toxic waste: The Tar Creek superfund site as a case-study. Pediatric Clinics of North America 54, 1: 155-175.

Krieg, Eric J. 1995. A Socio‐Historical Interpretation of Toxic Waste Sites.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 54, no. 1 (1995): 1-14.

Neuberger, John S., Stephen C. Hu, K. David Drake, and Rebecca Jim. 2009. Potential health impacts of heavy-metal exposure at the Tar Creek Superfund site, Ottawa County, Oklahoma. Environmental geochemistry and health 31, 1: 47-59.

Neuberger, John S., Margaret Mulhall, Mary C. Pomatto, Joan Sheverbush, and Ruth S. Hassanein. 1990. Health problems in Galena, Kansas: a heavy metal mining Superfund site. Science of the Total Environment 94, 3: 261-272.

Robinson, Erin E. 2002. Community frame analysis in Love Canal: understanding messages in a contaminated community. Sociological spectrum 22, 2: 139-169.

Seguin, Florence, Frédéric Le Bihan, Christophe Leboulanger, and Annette Bérard. 2002. A risk assessment of pollution: induction of atrazine tolerance in phytoplankton communities in freshwater outdoor mesocosms, using chlorophyll fluorescence as an endpoint. Water Research 36, 13: 3227-3236.

Senier, Laura, Benjamin Hudson, Sarah Fort, Elizabeth Hoover, Rebecca Tillson, and Phil Brown. 2008. Brown superfund basic research program: a multistakeholder partnership addresses real-world problems in contaminated communities. Environmental Science & Technology 42, 13: 4655-4662.

Spalinger, Susan M., Margrit C. von Braun, Varduhi Petrosyan, and Ian H. von Lindern. 2007. Northern Idaho house dust and soil lead levels compared to the Bunker Hill Superfund site. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 130, 1-3: 57-72.

White, Rob. 2012. Environmental Forensic Studies and Toxic Towns. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 24, 1: 105-119.

White, Rob. 2009. Toxic Cities: Globalizing the Problem of Waste. Social Justice 35, 3: 107-119.

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