Brown, foul-smelling water spewing out of faucets. Children poisoned by lead and other toxic metals. Families with aching joints, brittle bones and shocking hair loss. These troubling images and more have been flowing out of Flint, Michigan, since late last year as the scope and impact of the city’s austerity-driven water contamination crisis has become increasingly clear.
But pollution, contamination and toxic chemicals that harm children’s health aren’t confined to Flint. America’s children are being exposed to a host of toxic chemical hazards. From deteriorating lead paint still widespread in many communities, to toxic toys sold at dollar stores, to dangerous chemical facilities near homes and schools, we’re putting our kids in danger.
All children, but especially those under age 5, are susceptible to toxic chemicals because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing. However, there is a striking inequality in the likelihood that children of color and those living in poverty will be exposed to dangerous substances. That disparity is especially clear when we look at facilities that use, store or produce toxic chemicals.
A recent report from the Center for Effective Government found that nearly 1 in 10 school children – 4.9 million – attend school within a mile of a hazardous chemical facility. Almost two-thirds of the kids who live in homes near these facilities are children of color. Children of color living in poverty are especially hard hit, with poor Black and Latino children more than twice as likely to live in these “fenceline communities” as White children who are not poor.
Living near a dangerous chemical facility increases the chances of being exposed to toxic air or water pollution. These facilities operate in just about every state in the nation, though they are more densely concentrated in the Midwest, the South, the Mid-Atlantic and California.
Living in a fenceline community also significantly increases the risk of exposure should a large-scale chemical disaster occur. Again, that danger is greater in communities of color. Facilities located in these communities have almost twice the rate of incidents like chemical leaks, fires and explosions as those in communities largely populated by Whites.
Tackling this environmental injustice and protecting our children from dangerous chemicals require significant effort, but there are solutions at hand. First, national standards should require that manufacturers and chemical facilities switch to the safest alternative substances available, when feasible. This has already happened at water treatment plants and bleach manufacturing facilities across the country, but many more plants continue to pose a serious risk to children and nearby communities by using deadly chlorine gas and other toxic substances.
Other steps local, state or federal agencies can take include adopting new zoning laws or revising existing ones to block construction of new or expanded chemical facilities near homes and schools and to prevent new homes and schools from being built in fenceline zones; requiring chemical facilities to continuously monitor and report their fenceline-area emissions to agencies and the public; and improving enforcement of existing environmental and workplace health and safety regulations to safeguard all communities from toxic pollution and chemical disasters.
Our children deserve to be protected from chemicals that damage their brains, disrupt their ability to learn, wreak havoc on their developing reproductive systems, cause cancer, or spark deadly disasters next door to their homes and schools. We owe it to them to require commonsense solutions to reduce or eliminate these dangers.
Ronald White is the director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government. Molly Rauch is the public health policy director at Moms Clean Air Force.