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Environmental Health

Norman M. Trieff, Sabrina F. Strawn, and Marvin S. Legator General Entry

The environmental health of a country or state is essentially the sum of various categories: air pollution, water and soil pollution, and occupational health. Exposure to toxic chemicals plays a role in each of these categories. Air, water, and soil pollution result from industrial, vehicular, and natural sources, e.g., forest fires and volcanic eruptions, as well as domestic and agricultural sources. Air pollutants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, include sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone (and oxidants), particulates (dust), and lead. The EPA has not formulated a policy, as yet, for regulating the so-called "toxic" emission of petrochemicals that contain carbon-hydrogen linkages (bonds). These toxic compounds are emitted from industrial stacks or are transferred to toxic-waste sites that may contaminate ground or surface water.

Some of the environmental health problems in Texas have occurred in other parts of the United States: asbestosis and lung cancer in Tyler, silicosis in Houston from exposure to silica among sand blasters, and water pollution in Galveston Bay. The petrochemical center of the nation is situated along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Petroleum is refined and converted into many toxic intermediates and end-products. Nearly 60 percent of American petrochemical capacity is located in Texas, lured primarily since the 1940s by low taxes, few environmental regulations, and good shipping facilities. The value of chemical shipments from Texas in 1986 exceeded $25 billion.

Texans have had an unfortunate familiarity with industrial accidents. Many still remember one of the earliest, the Texas City disaster. In March 1947, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate, fertilizer with explosive properties, caught fire and then exploded. For two days other ships, wharves, and petrochemical facilities also burned and exploded. Almost 600 persons were killed, more than 3,000 injured, and 2,500 left homeless. Some fear that we are now in the midst of a more subtle, yet equally serious catastrophe. Some believe that Texans are exposed to higher levels of industrial chemicals than those living elsewhere and that these exposures may be having significant adverse effects. The United States Department of Health and Human Services, in its Atlas of U.S. Cancer Mortality, has noted that cancer death rates for White males along the Texas Gulf Coast are among the highest in the country. In addition, the death rates from cancer among Whites are increasing faster in this area than in the rest of the United States. Studies at petrochemical facilities have indicated marked increases in cancers of the blood system, brain, prostate, and skin. In 1986 the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, which requires manufacturers to report annually their emissions of certain toxins. Texas and Louisiana have led the list every year to date. Moreover, according to the Toxic Release Inventory, of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, Harris County is second in carcinogenic emissions, with nearly eleven million pounds released or transferred in 1988. Two other Texas counties (Brazoria and Jefferson) are among the top ten emitters of carcinogens.

In the summer of 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List identified twenty-eight hazardous-waste sites in Texas that qualified for cleanup funds under the federal Superfund program. In Harris County alone, the EPA reported ten sites. These included Brio Refining, Crystal Chemical, Dixie Oil Processors, French Limited, Geneva Industries, Highlands Acid Pit, Industrial Transformers, North and South Cavalcade Street in Houston, and Sikes Disposal Pit. Other sites on the list are Bailey Waste Disposal (Orange County), Bio-Ecology (Dallas County), Crystal City Airport (Zavala County), Air Force Plant No. 4 (Tarrant County), Koppers (Bowie County), Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant (Bowie County), Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant (Harrison County), Motco (Galveston Bay), Odessa Chronium Sites I and II (Ector County), Pantex (Carson County), Pesses (Tarrant County), Petro Chemical (Liberty County), Sheridan (Waller County), Stewco (Harrison County), Tex Tin Corporation (Galveston County), Texarkana Wood Preserving (Bowie County), Triangle Chemical (Orange County), and United Creosoting (Montgomery County). Congenital anomalies, spontaneous abortions, low birth weight, respiratory and skin problems, infections, and neurological disorders are some of the conditions reported by residents near toxic waste disposal sites.

Beginning in the early 1970s, federal and state officials began to enact laws and establish agencies designed to address problems of environmental pollution. The EPA was established in 1970. In 1976 Congress enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act, which gave the EPA broad authority to control chemical risks. In 1976, Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to control the disposal of hazardous wastes. It was followed by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, passed in 1980. This law, which established the Superfund, governs the cleaning of abandoned hazardous-waste sites. The Texas legislature has enacted various environmental laws and established new agencies or expanded the work of existing agencies. The Texas Water Commission is responsible for hazardous and industrial solid-waste management, coordination of responses to spills of oil and hazardous waste, and cleanup of abandoned waste sites. Emissions of toxic substances into water are also addressed in the permitting process. Emissions into air are regulated by the Texas Air Control Board, which also maintains a statewide network for monitoring the air.

S. A. Geschwind et al., "Risk of Congenital Malformation Associated with Proximity to Hazardous Waste Sites," American Journal of Epidemiology 135 (1992). Frank W. McKay, Margot R. Hanson, and Robert W. Miller, Cancer Mortality in the United States, 1950–1977 (Bethesda, Maryland: National Cancer Institutes, 1982). Norman M. Trieff, ed., Environment and Health (Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1981).


  • Health and Medicine
  • Medical Expertise

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Norman M. Trieff, Sabrina F. Strawn, and Marvin S. Legator, “Environmental Health,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 22, 2020,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.