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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Improving Health by Reducing Environmental Injustice

By Martha Dina Arguello

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 level.

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:

  1. Prevention: Prevent further toxic overload in already overburdened communities.
  2. Reduction: Clean up, reduce, and mitigate existing environmental problems and hazards.
  3. 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 multiple assaults.

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 workers.

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.

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