06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First in Profits, Second in What?

ExxonMobil just had another banner year. Despite the global economic slowdown, the oil company now tops the Fortune 500 in both profits and sales, with the latter helping it topple Wal-Mart in the business magazine's annual rankings of top U.S. companies.

It's also ninth in a less salubrious list -- the "Toxic 100," a ranking of the firms whose toxic air pollution contributes the most to human health risk. But lest this suggest slippage in the oil giant's stature, rest assured: ExxonMobil is second in the country in its disproportionate health effects on minorities and third in its disproportionate effects on the poor.

What is the Toxic 100? Maintained by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Toxic 100 uses a database created by the U.S. EPA called the Risk Screening Environmental Indicators. These data take the toxic releases reported to the government by every industrial facility in the country and churn them through an air model to see where they fall and whom they affect.

More toxics, more health risk; more people in the local air shed, more human harm. What the Toxic 100 project does is take the polluting plants and trace their corporate ownership. Drawing on a list of the full Fortune 500, the Fortune Global 500, the S&P 500, and the Forbes Global 2000, the 100 firms operating in the U.S. with the largest negative health impacts are ranked.

In a just-released report entitled, Justice in the Air, we have plotted the impacts of the toxic air pollution from all of America's industries and from these top 100 polluting companies onto our states, cities, and neighborhoods. In a first-ever effort, we have paid special attention to the fact that that such pollution is not an equal opportunity affair: minorities and the poor generally live on the "wrong side of the environmental tracks."

It's a sort of whodunit -- and who gets it -- analysis.

Tennessee, for example, has the highest disparities in exposure: the minority share of the health risk is 43 percent while the minority share of that state's population is 21 percent. California, proud as it should be of its commitment to the environment, is among the cleanest of the states in terms of overall toxics -- but it's among the worst of the states in terms of having a disproportionate share of the resulting health risk borne by the poor and people of color.

Petroleum refining, fabricated metals, and electrical services all compete to have the most disproportionate impacts -- and it is the companies associated with these sectors, including refiners like ExxonMobil, Hess, and Valero, and defense contractors like General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, that land among the top ten for whom minorities and the poor bear the highest health risk. For Exxon, for example, minorities, who comprise just over 30 percent of the U.S. population, are nearly 70 percent of those affected by the health risk from the company's air toxic releases.

While one reaction is simply to point fingers, we think that is too simple. Production has its consequences and responsibility for improvement is widespread. Moreover, many companies are seeking to improve their environmental and social performance and many consumers want to know they're doing the right thing when they buy their products.

We therefore think the data call for four new approaches.

First, we need to improve the flow of information -- and we are pleased that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is taking steps to restore standards for company-based toxic reports that were weakened under the previous administration.

Second, we need to mix modeling and monitoring. These results come from (informed) guesses about where the pollution goes; if the model says a particular place is inundated, we should improve real-time measurement of emissions and health impacts.

Third, we need to consider cumulative impacts. Neighborhoods aren't affected by just one source or one company. Health-sensitive approaches need to take into account the additive and interactive effects.

Fourth, we need to encourage shareholder activism. Our measure of pollution equity is one benchmark among many that the owners of companies can use to gauge their impacts and their performance.

Former vice President Al Gore helped persuade a reluctant nation to face "an inconvenient truth" -- the reality of climate change and the threats it poses. An equally inconvenient truth is that America's history of racial inequality has been stamped not only on labor and housing markets, but also on the very air we breathe.

But history is not destiny. We can develop smart environmental policies that strengthen those most affected by pollution. We can shoulder our responsibilities as citizens, communities, and corporations. And we can secure a future in which the right to clean air is truly shared by all.