‘People are dying’: Neighbors in some of Memphis’ oldest communities plagued by pollution

Families in some Memphis neighborhoods have lived under smokestacks and hazy skies for generations.

Now, residents who are living under a fear of pollution may soon get answers.

Shelby County Health Director Dr. Michelle Taylor is working with the state health department to conduct a study on whether the plants in some of Memphis’ oldest communities are giving residents cancer.

RELATED: Health department shuts down Memphis cotton gin for permit violations

In a FOX13 investigation, health reporter Mandy Hrach started in Boxtown, a community which environmental scientists say has cancer rates four times higher than the national average.

For people like Bastell Booker, Boxtown is home.

“I lived in Boxtown all of my life,” he said. “We love our neighborhood. We take care of each other. It’s a close-knit neighborhood.”

It’s that tight-knit family feel Booker said makes his community so very special. His family has been here for generations and his children grew up here.

“We are children standing on top of our children’s shoulders,” Booker said. “It’s a continue cycle of the same people.”

Walking the familiar streets with neighbors that have turned into family is a weekly tradition for Bastell. But you won’t see them outside without a mask.

“We are protecting ourselves from the air quality and the chemicals in the air,” Sarah Gladney of Boxton said. “Some of us have allergies.”

The low-income community founded by former slaves is plagued by pollution.

RELATED: EPA concerned about air quality around South Memphis business

The Valero Oil Refinery, which over the years, was part of a $4.25 million penalty over pollution, the TVA Allen Fossil Plant, now shut down and replaced by a natural gas plant, and refined metal, which is now a federal superfund site.

“You have people that are dying,” Gladney said. “A lot of people that are dying with cancer and other issues.”

Gladney explains the smell she often experiences when she steps outside on her front porch.

“Sometimes I wake up early in the morning and I smell this awful scent in my home, I can hardly breathe,” she said.

Just a few miles away on Florida St. lies another concern for people in south Memphis.

In August, the EPA told the city that Sterilization Services of Tennessee could be putting out hazardous fumes into the air.

RELATED: EPA plans community outreach to address air quality concerns in South Memphis

The plant uses a colorless, odorless gas called Ethylene Oxide, or EtO, to sterilize medical equipment.

Caroline Freeman, the EPA Region 4 Air Director said breathing it over a long period of time could cause cancer.

“This is a risk that if I am exposed to it from the time I was born to maybe age 70, I would have a greater chance of developing some form of cancer, maybe breast or lymph cancer,” she said.

Many of the families in the neighborhoods FOX13 spoke to have lived there for generations.

RELATED: Community concerned after neighborhood exposed twice to potentially hazardous air

Less than a two-minute drive away from sterilization plant, the Shelby County Health Department shut down Planter’s Gin Company in December 2021 for permit violations and pollution concerns.

Instead of smoke, cotton gins emit particulate matter, which is similar to dust and can get into people’s lungs.

“If the particle size is small enough, it can cause irritant into the airway and it can cause irritation in peoples airways and also can enhance individuals that have lung issues,” Dr. Larry Hopper, a respiratory therapist at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis said.

Dr. Hopper said these kinds of irritants can be unknown killers to people over time.

“If you are born in it or you are raised in it and you have to stay in it long periods of a time, then you don’t know and it becomes natural to you, so you don’t even know it is a problem,” Dr. Hopper said.

For Justin J. Pearson, anguish runs deep. He and his family grew up in the Westwood community near Boxtown.

He lost both his grandmothers to cancer.

“Because they didn’t have a lot of money, because they weren’t rich enough to live away from the pollution, their lives were deemed less valuable,” Pearson said.

That’s why Pearson founded the group “Memphis Community Against Pollution.”

By knocking on doors and sending out mailers, he’s made it his mission to educate people about what is going on.

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“Those voids that are happening in our families, we can’t fill those,” Pearson said. “But we can fight, and that is what we are doing now.”

As the sun sets on another day in Memphis, neighbors like Booker say they will rise to fight for cleaner air.

“We are always ready to stand together for a fight for our neighborhood,” he said. “A good god-fearing neighborhood.”

The EPA is working on a new rule to limit EtO emissions from commercial sterilizers like the one on Florida St.

Neighbors say the EPA getting involved is a start, but they want more community leaders to make sure the air is tested more often.

FOX13 reached out to all the companies we named in this story, including Sterilization Services of Tennessee.

We wanted to ask what they are doing to limit EtO exposure to the community in the meantime, but an employee told us they are not commenting on the situation.

We also heard back from Tennessee Valley Authority.

A spokesperson said the Memphis coal plant operated for more than 50 years and was updated with environmental controls based on requirements at the time.

FOX13 heard from so many families in these affected communities who believe they or their loved ones have suffered health consequences from pollution.

We would love to hear from you if you think you have also been affected.

You can contact our health reporter Mandy Hrach by email at amanda.hrach@fox13memphis.com or by phone at 901-626-2992.