Improving Health by Reducing Environmental Injustice
October 6, 2011
This essay is in response to: Explain how environmental justice concerns play out in your community, and how policy change could address exposure disparities.
Imagine living surrounded by chrome plating facilities, lead
smelters, and plastics- and pesticide-manufacturing facilities. Often the fetid
stench from the local rendering plant is so pervasive that long-term residents no
longer notice it. That is the area where my family lives. My 20-month-old niece
and my 72-year-old mother breathe this air.
The birth of my niece has added a sense of personal urgency
to my work on chemical policy reform. A growing body of research documents
health inequalities affecting low-income communities and communities of color. Often
these very same communities also face a disproportionate number of pollution
sources. This dynamic between health and place requires that any meaningful chemical
policy reform addresses toxic hot spots as a central issue. Environmental health
and justice concerns about health inequities and cumulative exposure to
environmental toxicants need to be addressed at both the local and national
In Los Angeles, PSR-LA is part of the Clean up Green up
Campaign, which develops green zones where data is collected on cumulative
exposure to toxicants. This effort speaks to the desire in these communities to
decrease environmental contamination and make communities more resilient. The
goal of this campaign is to implement a comprehensive policy framework that
focuses on the following:
- Prevention: Prevent further toxic overload in
already overburdened communities.
- Reduction: Clean up, reduce, and mitigate
existing environmental problems and hazards.
- Transformation: Implement innovative economic
revitalization strategies that will transform toxic neighborhoods into healthy,
sustainable, and vibrant communities.
The campaign focuses its efforts on reducing toxic hot spots
and acknowledges the need to revitalize our communities and local economies. Adoption
of these recommendations will create healthier people, environments, and
communities – not only in Los Angeles’ most vulnerable neighborhoods but
throughout the City and region as a whole.
While we work at the local level,
we realize that a critical part of our effort must be strong reform of the
Toxic Substances Control Act. Enacted in 1976, the law allowed some
62,000 chemicals to be grandfathered into the regulatory scheme without proof
of safety. Between 1976 and 2010, the list of chemicals on the market swelled
to roughly 80,000. In the last 35 years the Environmental Protection Agency has
reviewed only 200 chemicals and has restricted only five. All of this inaction
at a time when the body of scientific evidence about the negative health
effects associated with toxic exposures continues to grow.
The result of this inaction is
that low income areas, indigenous communities, and communities of color do not
receive adequate environmental protections and end up living in toxic
“hot spots.” This over-concentration of polluting facilities results in health
disparities from asthma, diabetes, low birth weight, and increased levels of
stress. Researchers Pastor, Frosh, and Sadd talk about these
cumulative impacts as part of what makes communities vulnerable to these
EJ groups recognize that effective reform must reduce the
disproportionate burden of chemical exposure in communities of color, low
income people, and indigenous communities. More importantly, we need to act immediately
to eliminate persistent bioaccumulative chemicals and promote safer alternatives.
Persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs) are
uniquely dangerous and should be phased out of commerce, and we should
aggressively look for safer alternatives. Exposure to other toxic chemicals that
have already been extensively studied, like formaldehyde, should be reduced to
the maximum extent feasible. Many environmental justice advocates and scientists
feel that we have enough evidence to act on these proven poisons. Green
chemistry research should be expanded, and safer chemicals favored over those
with known health hazards.
TSCA reform should seek to protect all people and set
standards that protect vulnerable groups using the best science available. A healthy
and a clean environment is a human right. Chemicals should be assessed against
a health standard that protects all people, especially the most vulnerable
subpopulations, including children, workers, people of child-bearing age, and
the elderly. Furthermore, the EPA should adopt the recommendations of the
National Academy of Sciences for reforming risk assessment.
Many communities view risk assessments as tools that enable
polluters to continue practices that lead directly to unacceptable levels of
harm. Advocates for health would rather see alternatives assessments that examine
full range of alternatives, instead of a risk assessment that determines an acceptable
level of risk and places the majority of the risk burden on communities and
As part of our work to promote national policy reform of
TSCA, we have to place protection of the most vulnerable and closing the
environmental justice gap squarely at the center our reform efforts. The
movement for environmental justice seeks to decrease pollution and to increase health
and resiliency in communities and for individuals.