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Impoverished Americans Face Environmental Health Problems

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Chronic poverty grips regions across the United States, and leaves urban and rural residents alike in struggles for employment, housing and some of life's basic necessities. It often also leaves poor Americans exposed to pollution and environmental degradation which can produce a range of health problems.

Natural resource extraction has affected environmental quality in areas of the U.S., leaving impoverished communities exposed. Appalachia, a region with a poverty rate nearly five percent higher than the national average in 2008, is home to mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. MTR, which uses explosives to expose coal seams under the surfaces of mountains, has been the target of protests across the region as the coal industry challenged and defeated EPA rules in court.

In a 2011 study, the mining practice was linked to greater instances of birth defects. HuffPost's Travis Donovan reported that the study, published in Environmental Research, "examined over 1.8 million live birth records from 1996 to 2003 using National Center for Health Statistics data from the central Appalachian states of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee." They found that babies born near MTR sites had "significantly higher" rates of several birth defects.

In June 2012, House members introduced the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act (H.R. 5959), to "place a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, and for other purposes," according to GovTrack.

Author and HuffPost blogger Jeff Biggers noted:

Over the past few years, as impacted coal mining residents have pleaded for basic civil rights and environmental protection, around 20 peer-reviewed studies have suggested higher risks and links between reckless strip mining and devastating health impacts, including birth defects, cancer and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease.

Another method of fossil fuel extraction, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has also been linked to environmental degradation in rural areas. Although the extent of groundwater contamination as a result of fracking remains debated, a study in April 2012 in the journal Ground Water found that rock layers in the Eastern United States' Marcellus Shale region are "not impermeable," and fracking chemicals could potentially reach the surface in "just a few years," reported ProPublica.

Nationwide Insurance recently became the first major U.S. insurer to announce that it would not cover damage related to fracking. According to AP, Nationwide said in an internal memo, "We have determined that the exposures presented by hydraulic fracturing are too great to ignore."

The Marcellus Formation lies primarily under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virignia -- states with large rural, and often impoverished, areas. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia noted in a 2011 report that "Most of the [natural gas drilling] development is occurring in relatively small communities that lack the infrastructure and support necessary to accommodate rapid, intense population growth and economic and workforce expansion."

In December 2011, the EPA released a draft of findings which showed "that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals," reported the Associated Press. In May, AP found that Wyoming Governor Matt Head persuaded the EPA to postpone the announcement "giving state officials – whom the EPA had privately briefed on the study – time to attempt to debunk the finding before it rocked the oil and gas industry more than a month later."

Urban Americans in poverty also face negative health consequences in their environment. HuffPost's Lynne Peeples reported earlier this year on a study that found "low-income and minority groups -- in particular, poor children of color -- tend to be most exposed to air pollution." As a result, these children may be more likely to suffer from chronic respiratory conditions. In fact, almost one in four impoverished Hispanic and Puerto Rican children in the U.S. have asthma, compared to "about one in 13 middle-class or wealthy white children." Activists have also alleged a connection between diesel fumes from garbage trucks and asthma among poorer New York City children.

There are many other environmental threats that burden the health of Americans living in poverty. What other cases of the environment, health and poverty intersecting have you seen or experienced?

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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