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Emissions from three plants in Virginia identified as cancer-causing hotspots

Entrance to industrial facility
Crixell Matthews
The Ashland Specialty Ingredients plant in Hopewell. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's Note: This reporting is one story in a three-part series. VPM News Intern Adiah Gholston contributed to the reporting. 

Industrial plants in Henrico County, Hopewell and Radford have been identified in a new research map as emitting dangerous levels of cancer causing pollution into the air. 

The interactive nationwide map, called “The Most Detailed Map of Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution in the U.S.” was released by the independent nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica in November. Maya Miller is a reporter at ProPublica who helped produce the map. She says it was created to be a tool for regular people to understand the risks associated with living and working near these plants. 

“[We] want to give people the opportunity to really see as much of the full picture of the risks that they face,” Miller said. 

The map is drawn from publicly available data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, specifically its Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model. That data pulls from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, where industrial companies report their annual emissions to the government. 

The industrial sites identified in the map produce cancer-causing emissions that exceed the EPA’s recommended estimated cancer risk of 1 in 100,000. 

“That means that for every 100,000 people who live there, at least one person will develop cancer related to the toxic air pollution they're exposed to. And that doesn't include all the other types of cancer that the population might get,” Miller said.  

According to the agency, they consider a cancer risk of between 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000 to be acceptable. On the map, areas where people are exposed to rates of cancer risk higher than 1 in 10,000 are shaded in red. The gray boundaries surrounding those hotspots represent the populations where excess cancer risk exceeds 1 in 100,000. 

Roger Anderson, Ph.D. is co-leader of Cancer Control and Population Health Research at the University of Virginia. He says all Virginians should be gravely concerned about the risks the map is showing. 

“We all have to be alarmed and concerned when there is an excess risk,” Anderson said. 

The most concerning of the plants in Virginia is located near Radford. The Radford Army Ammunition Plant is one of the nation’s largest hotspots, and it dwarfs the other two plants’ emissions in the commonwealth. 

At the plant itself, there is an excess cancer risk of 1 in 44. That means that people working and living immediately surrounding the plant are exposed to about 230 times the EPA’s acceptable risk for exposure to carcinogenic emissions. 

According to the ProPublica map, emissions from this plant radiate out across Radford, Blacksburg and Christiansburg. Large areas of those towns have been exposed to the plant’s emissions since it was established in the 1940s by the U.S. Department of Defense. 

The Joint Munitions Command says it is an “energetics and propellant facility,” according to Justine Barati, director of public affairs for the plant’s headquarters. 

The plant is operated by BAE Systems, a for-profit international defense, aerospace and security company that DOD contracts to supply its troops with missiles, guns, ammunition, combat gear and other military technology. The plant also includes several other lesser tenants including contractors that specialize in storing projectiles, assembling ammunition and manufacturing weapons. 

The ammunition plant is located at 4050 Peppers Ferry Road, just 2 miles from an elementary school. Students, teachers and staff at Belview Elementary School are exposed to an excess cancer risk of 1 in 1,900 — 5 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable limits. The area impacted by its emissions also includes Radford University and Virginia Tech, among other community centers. 

According to the EPA’s Air Pollutant Report on the plant, it emitted thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air in 2020 alone. Emissions linked to causing cancer include 842 pounds of lead compounds, 1,343 pounds of nitric acid and 62,792 pounds of nitroglycerin. 

The second largest cancer hotspot in Virginia is located in Henrico County, but the impact of its air emissions stretches across Richmond, Mechanicsville and Highland Springs. Sterilization Services of Richmond processes and stores sterilized equipment and has been operating on the outskirts of the city since 1990. At the heart of the plant, located at 5674 Eastport Blvd, there is a 1 in 1,800 excess cancer risk. That means that people working in the facility are exposed to 5.5 times the EPA’s acceptable cancer risk. 

Just two miles down the road from the Richmond-area plant is a Henrico Public Schools elementary school. However, students, teachers and staff at Montrose Elementary School are only exposed to a 1 in 22,000 excess cancer risk — 54% lower than the EPA’s acceptable risk threshold. VCU’s MCV campus is also within the area identified by the map as being impacted by this plant’s carcinogenic emissions. At the VCU’s MCV campus hospital there is an excess cancer risk of 1 in 84,000. That’s 88% lower than the EPA’s acceptable risk.

In 2020, according to their Air Pollutant Report, the plant released 4,079 pounds of ethylene oxide, a chemical linked to causing cancer, into the air. 

Lastly in Hopewell, a plant operated by Ashland Specialty Ingredients is exposing its workers and surrounding community to an excess cancer risk of 1 in 770 — 13 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable risk threshold. This company provides specialty chemical solutions used in pharmaceutical, personal care, architectural coating, construction, energy and food production. They’ve been operating in Virginia since at least 1989, according to the DEQ. 

The EPA reports that the plant emitted 63,321 pounds of chloroethane, 999 pounds of ethylene oxide, 2,294 pounds of nitric acid, 2,695 pounds of propylene oxide, and 43,210 pounds of tert-Butanol into the air in 2020. 

Located at 1111 Hercules Road, this plant is just a mile away from Carter G. Woodson Middle School. The school is slightly over the EPA’s acceptable cancer emission risk at 1 in 8,700. 

Experts say exposure to these airborne chemicals over time will increase the risk of developing cancer, especially among people who are predisposed to the condition. 

“Approximately 40 to 50% of cancers are thought to be just random. And so that means that there's no way to really predict who will have a certain type of cancer. But for the majority … of cancers, it does occur in a predictable way,” Anderson said. 

It’s hard to pin down from where exactly someone got cancer. That’s because there are so many environmental and behavioral factors that can ultimately lead to the condition, making it difficult to narrow down the reason on an individual level. On a community level, however, experts say they’ve long observed trends in who contracts and dies of cancer in Virginia. 

“At the community level, we see that zip codes actually cluster cancer as well. And that really tells us a new layer of risk,” Anderson said. “It’s partially poverty related. There’s less healthcare supply and infrastructure in higher-risk communities.” 

Analysis by VPM of the Virginia Cancer Registry’s cancer incidence statistics paints a murky picture of whether communities surrounding the industrial plants in Henrico, Hopewell and Radford have higher rates of cancer than other areas in the commonwealth. 

In Radford, the overall cancer rate is 445.2 per 100,000 people. In Hopewell, the rate is 539.1 per 100,000 people, and in Henrico the rate is 455.6 per 100,000 people. Cancer incidence rates in Virginia range between 274.9 per 100,000  in Bristol to 607.8 per 100,000 in Richmond County. That means that while they’re towards the higher end of counties in terms of cancer incidence rates, the communities where these plants are located aren’t the communities with the highest rates of the condition. 

The picture data paints of cancer incidence in these communities is also clouded by the fact that the Richmond, Blacksburg and Radford areas are home to universities. Community members say the high turnover in students and medical professionals in these communities makes it hard to track who is getting sick after they leave the area. Alyssa Carpenter is a former Radford community member who has rallied her neighbors against the army plant after contracting a thyroid condition she attributes to her time spent in proximity to the plant. 

“There's not too many doctors staying in the same place long enough to kind of really pick up on these trends,” Carpenter said. “We deserve to have a healthy and safe community to live in and to not have to worry about being exposed to toxic chemicals.”

After college, Carpenter moved away from Radford, but she says it was already too late. Experts add that while that might be an option for some, the majority of people impacted by these plants don’t have the option to move or to work somewhere else. 

“It doesn’t change the fundamental problem in those communities,” Anderson said. “I don't think it's unavoidable. It would potentially cost the factories and the industries money to better fit their processes so that they're cleaner and healthier. But it's worth it in terms of public health. It's a great investment.” 

That’s why experts and activists say the publication of this map should be a call to action for community members concerned about their exposure to cancer-causing emissions. They hope the industries creating these emissions will soon have to answer to Virginia’s elected officials. 

“We need to go back to our community leaders and our public health leaders in the commonwealth, to ask for intervention,” Anderson said.