If you want to live a long life don’t move to Stilwell, Oklahoma. According to the most detailed local health data ever released by the National Center for Health Statistics this small, rural town in Oklahoma has the lowest life expectancy rate in the U.S.
Poverty plays a big role in Stilwell’s life expectancy rate with 32% of the population below the poverty line. Stilwell is part of an area known as “Mercury Alley.” Stilwell is also in Cherokee nation. While the tribe is working to increase education and health care, more studies are needed, as it seems more and more likely air pollution plays a role in the poor health Stilwell residents.
The average age at death for residents of Stilwell is 56.3 years, 22.5 years earlier than the national average. These rates are comparable to places like the Congo where life expectancy is 57.7 years and Uganda 55.9 years.
Even though Oklahoma is one of the largest natural gas producers, about 40 percent of the electricity generated comes from coal. And eastern Oklahoma, where Stilwell is located, is where the coal power plants reside and produce coal ash.
I live about 135 miles from Stilwell in the small town of Ada. Between us is a town called Bokoshe, Oklahoma. Bokoshe was built on coal mining and has had a major problem with coal ash. It’s such a big problem, there was once was a billboard in Bokoshe that said: “Coal Ash Capital of the World.”
More than 50 of Oklahoma’s lakes have fish with elevated mercury levels. Many of these lakes are located in the heart of “Mercury Alley” area. Coal-fired power plants are the most significant source of mercury pollution, emitting almost three quarters of all mercury air emissions in the U.S. Although coal contains only trace amounts of naturally occurring mercury, when burned in large quantities for energy, it releases significant amounts of gaseous mercury into the air. This airborne mercury eventually falls into the lakes and concentrates in fish over years, and magnifies across the food web. As a potent neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children, we know mercury is a dangerous health hazard. Simply dismissing Stilwell citizens as being unhealthy due to lifestyle, or even poverty level, does them a huge disservice.
With the current administration’s attack on mercury and air standards, things don’t look great for places like Stilwell…or even my own town, which isn’t far from many of these coal power plants. The lives and livelihoods of our Oklahoma families depend on protecting and implementing the mercury standards.