The Canary in the Gold Mine
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.
As the Executive Director for the Just
Transition Alliance (JTA), an environmental justice organization in San Diego,
CA, I have had the opportunity to work and see the importance of chemical
policy reform in California and in the United States for the last 20 years. JTA was founded in 1997
by environmental justice and labor organizations and became a 501(c) 3
organization in 2001. JTA works throughout the state and nation. The Just Transition
Alliance serves people of color; low-income communities, especially those who
live near polluting industries; and workers, particularly those who work in the
energy, mining, and chemical sectors. Not only do we focus on contaminated
sites that should be cleaned up and on the transition to clean production and
sustainable economies, but we also focus on work that will ameliorate the lack
of knowledge and the lack of choice that our communities have when dealing with
the toxic chemicals in the community, the workplace, and in the home.
Having grown up as a child farmworker
alongside my parents and family members, I have seen the effects of outdated
and weak laws and regulations on individuals who work with pesticides in the
fields. California is moving towards replacing Methyl Bromide with a new
chemical called Methyl Iodide, a pesticide that is used specifically to cause
cancer in laboratory rats. It has also been linked to late term miscarriages.
Going to various demonstrations, presentations, and workshops in communities
and universities, I have been approached by individuals wanting to know how to
make changes in their lives and avoid exposing their children and family
members to toxic chemicals. But how can I tell them to avoid toxic chemicals
when our regulations allow for their exposure, and toxic chemicals can be found
in the majority of the products that are available to them?
People of color and low-income community
members have to live and survive under dire circumstances since they are
disproportionately impacted by waste dumps, refineries, and manufacturing
plants. They are also affected by the cumulative impact of a multitude of chemicals.
In addition, selective enforcement and the lack of knowledge that communities
of color and low income communities are living with keeps us trapped in an
environment that is akin to the canary in the gold mine. We deserve the right to
know in order to have the right to act, and we deserve to have a comprehensive
chemical policy reform that considers cumulative impact, addresses hot spots, and
that takes immediate action on the worst chemicals (“legacy chemicals”).
In recent years, rates of diabetes,
obesity, heart disease, childhood cancer, infertility, and learning and
developmental disabilities have significantly increased. Although many factors
can lead to these serious and debilitating conditions, chemicals in the
environment have been shown to play a significant role in all of them. In
addition, cancer has been specifically connected to toxic chemicals.
Toxic chemicals pose the greatest health
threat to people from communities of color in most if not all states. The
federal law for assessing the safety of chemicals in commerce, the Toxic
Substance Control Act (TSCA), is outdated, and this obsolete law is doing
little to protect the public from toxic chemicals since it does not test
chemicals before they are used in consumer products. Out of the 84,000
chemicals on the market today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has
tested only 200 of them for their health effects and only five have been
restricted for certain uses. This demonstrates that there are thousands of chemicals
in use today that have never been assessed for safety – chemicals that disproportionately
affect communities of color and low income communities.
The President’s Cancer Panel provided
strong confirmation in 2010 that exposure to toxic chemicals is an important
risk factor for cancer that is often overlooked. The Panel highlighted that
TSCA needs to be reformed in Congress, commenting that the law is “the most
egregious example of ineffective regulation of chemical contaminants.”
With communities of color and low income
communities receiving the brunt of an ineffective regulation and selective
enforcement, children, adults, and the elderly have to live in areas where cases
of childhood cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, thyroid, liver, kidney, and breast
cancer are not uncommon. It is crucial that we and our regulations assess the
chemicals in our products that line the aisles of our stores. It is also
crucial that we address “hot spots,” the places where industry is causing the
greatest damage. Our nation needs comprehensive and cohesive reform that will
protect human health from environmental contaminants and the preventable forms
of cancer associated with toxic chemicals.
Rising rates of cancer and other chronic
diseases, especially among the most vulnerable populations, means that our
federal laws are failing to protect public health. Chemicals banned decades ago
continue to show up in communities across the country as a result of building
up over time in our bodies and in the food chain. We need a law that will
protect us from harmful chemicals and keep our families safe and healthy. We
need change. We need reform.