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Toxic Chemicals and Environmental Justice

April 2010

Toxic chemical exposures create specific burdens borne by communities-of-color, Indigenous peoples, and low income communities. These communities across the United States bear a disproportionate impact of a wide array of chemical exposures.   

They are exposed not only to current chemicals through consumer products, industrial polluters, and chemical plants in their neighborhoods, but they also are frequently afflicted by legacy chemicals from prior industrial land uses. From Alaska to the Gulf Coast, in urban centers like Chicago, New York, Hartford, San Diego and Austin, or to the rural farm country of North Carolina; from the Anishinabe tribe in the Great Lakes to the Penobscot nation in Maine and for countless other communities-of-color, Indigenous peoples across this nation – chemical contamination is real and far too common.

What does this real contamination and disproportionate exposure look like on the ground in these communities?

  • The Arctic: Indigenous peoples reliant on traditional diets of fish and marine mammals are among the most highly exposed to persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBTs) on earth. A study of the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island in Alaska found that they carry PCBs in their blood at levels that are 6-9 times higher than the general population in the lower-48 states.  In addition to the high levels of banned, “legacy” chemicals as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), levels of currently used chemicals such as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are rapidly rising, posing additional health hazards to northern peoples.
  • Gulf Coast: After being ravaged by the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, residents were further assaulted by cancer-causing formaldehyde inside the trailer homes that were provided by the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA).
  • New Bedford, MA and other urban centers: One of the most common chemicals found in toxic waste sites that are located in urban residential neighborhoods is trichloroethylene (TCE), which is likely to cause cancer, liver and kidney disease as well as autoimmune diseases. TCE can be inhaled after vaporizing on playgrounds or leaching into people’s basements and drinking water.
  • Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Austin, Hartford, San Diego, Baltimore, etc: In urban centers in the United States, 99 cent stores abound, selling more lead-laden toys and jewelry containing cadmium, a known carcinogen that causes kidney and immune system damage, than stores in more affluent communities.
  • Northern Minnesota:  The Anishinabe/Ojibwe have practiced their land-based culture for hundreds of years, the rivers where they fish are polluted with dioxin and mercury, and their diets are now at risk because they are unable to harvest uncontaminated wild rice or catch unpolluted fish or and other aquatic traditional foods.
  • Nationwide: Bodegas in many urban centers often replace supermarkets because of their prices and proximity. They stock baby bottles and canned foods manufactured or lined with Bisphenol A (BPA), and carry little fresh food. BPA has been associated with obesity, cancer, and many other health conditions.  Canned foods are a major source of nutrition and often the only source of vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. Urban residents are therefore disproportionately exposed to this ubiquitous packaging additive.

We recognize that communities-of-color, Indigenous peoples, and low income communities bear a disproportionate burden of toxic chemical exposures and related negative health outcomes. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s proposed modernization of the Toxic Substances Control Act, S.3209, also known as the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, includes provisions mandating EPA to develop action plans to reduce the disproportionately high exposures to toxic chemicals in some communities. Environmental justice groups applaud this provision.
We believe that chemical regulatory policy should embody three key elements to advance environmental justice:

1. Ensure Environmental Justice
Effective reform should contribute substantially to reducing the disproportionate burden of toxic chemical exposure placed on low-income people, people of color and indigenous communities.

2. Immediately Act on the Worst Chemicals First and Promote Safer Alternatives
Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBTs) are uniquely dangerous. PBT’s to which people are exposed should be phased out of commerce except for critical uses that lack viable alternatives.  Exposure to other toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, that have already been extensively studied should be reduced to the maximum extent feasible.  Our communities cannot wait on yet another study on these proven poisons.  Green chemistry research should be expanded, and safer chemicals favored over those with known health hazards.

3. Protect All People, and Vulnerable Groups, Using the Best Science
All chemicals should be assessed against a health standard that protects all people and the environment, especially the most vulnerable subpopulations, including children, workers, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations.  EPA should adopt the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences for reforming risk assessment.  Biomonitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be significantly expanded and used by EPA to assess pollution in people.

This fact sheet is adapted from a letter sent by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition in April, 2010, to Congress asking for strong environmental justice provisions in a chemical policy reform bill. The letter was signed by a broad coalition of environmental justice, environmental, and public health groups, including PSR.

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