These US Towns Are So Toxic And Polluted, It's Dangerous To Live In Them

The world includes many uninhabitable places, and humans are sometimes the cause. Places like Chernobyl or Fukushima are known for their lingering radiation, but dangerously toxic towns exist in the United States, as well. Pollution might affect the air, while hazardous chemicals and toxic waste may lurk in the soil and groundwater. Saturated with dangerous materials like lead, arsenic, or DDT, the most poisonous places in the US remain risky spots to call home.

For many years, people disposed of hazardous waste indiscriminately. But in 1980, Congress created the Superfund program to help the Environmental Protection Agency identify toxic areas and properly cleanse them. More than 1,300 Superfund sites dot the country, so be careful. You never know which dangerous areas you'll stumble upon during your next trip out of town.

  • Love Canal, Niagara Falls, NY
    Photo: Buffalutheran / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    In the 1890s, entrepreneur William T. Love purchased land in Niagara Falls, NY. He wanted to build a large, modern city powered by hydroelectric technology. Love managed to finish one pit of the envisioned canal before his project collapsed. In 1920, the city purchased the pit to use as a chemical waste dumping ground.

    Twenty years later, a chemical manufacturing company bought the land for their disposal, dropping around 22,000 tons of dangerous materials. The company lined the almost-full pit with clay, covered it with dirt, and declared it safe for construction.

    Developers built houses and an elementary school on the original Love land, but residents soon fell ill; babies died or suffered severe birth defects. Although the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found more than 400 dangerous substances in the area, the school didn't close until 1978; the residents evacuated then, too. Several areas remain unsafe.

  • Kotzebue, AK
    Photo: Chris Lott / WIkimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Kotzebue, AK

    Around 3,500 residents reside in Kotzebue, AK, roughly 30 miles beyond the Arctic Circle. Iñupiat Eskimos make up 70% of the population. According to 2016 research data, the town is the most toxic place in America. Kotzebue produced at least 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals. The Red Dog Mine, which lies 82 miles north of the town, is likely responsible for the waste. 

    One of the largest lead-zinc mines on Earth, Red Dog releases toxic substances into the surrounding water and soil. Lichens can also absorb the contaminants; when caribou consume the infected vegetation, it endangers humans who eat their meat. 

    The mine received licensing to remain open until 2031, and it took several measures to rectify the problem. Conflict continues to brew between people who consider the area safe and those who feel the mine ruins the environment and community.

  • Centralia, PA, thrived as a mining community in the late 1800s, but many mines closed in the 1960s. In 1962, a fire started in an abandoned strip-mine pit. Residents were vaguely aware of the issue, but the extent of the danger didn't become apparent until 1979, when fuel in a gas station's underground tanks heated to 172 degrees.

    Then, in 1981, a local 12-year-old boy fell eight feet into a sinkhole in his backyard. More than 150 feet deep, the sinkhole contained deadly amounts of carbon monoxide. Luckily he clung to a tree's roots and was pulled to safety, but the government stepped in, relocating residents.

    Lethal gasses and sinkholes still fill the area, but signs warn passersby to avoid the stretch of land. Centralia lost its zip code in 2002, but 11 years later, a handful of residents obtained a court order to continue living in the otherwise abandoned town. As of 2017, five residents remained. While they won the right to live out the rest of their lives in the still-burning wasteland, the town of Centralia will cease to exist after them.

  • Picher, OK

    The town of Picher, OK, incorporated in 1918, as zinc and lead deposits drew miners to the area. By the 1970s, the mines shut down due to the waning industry, and the abandoned underground tunnels filled with water. Minerals from the tunnels contaminated millions of tons of water, which seeped into the surrounding area.

    By 1993, a study revealed more than one-third of Picher's children possessed enough lead in their bloodstreams to cause brain damage. Though some residents remained in spite of federal land buyouts, the school system shut down in 2009, and the municipality officially dissolved in 2013.