Environmental racism persists

Strategies for Well-Being

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. The lead poisoning of children in Flint is only the latest example of environmental racism in the U.S.

Unfortunately, Flint’s water scandal is a symptom of a much larger disease.

The activist organization Greenaction has stated that environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color.

Research has shown a higher incidence of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other pulmonary diseases in these communities. Some link the asthma epidemic among African Americans to industrial toxins wafting over poor neighborhoods. Asthma affects twice as many Black children as White, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its rate among African American kids doubled from 2001 to 2009.

Research by the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has shown that lead from plumbing, house paints and contaminated soils reaches many poor children of all races. But in an unexplained disparity, as far back as 1988, studies have concluded that Black children, regardless of their families’ income, are much more likely than White children to have unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood.

Many health experts say lead is the most widespread environmental hazard in minority communities. The effects of lead poisoning can extend from headaches and nausea to permanent brain damage, especially in children.

In 1987, Toxic Waste and Race (the seminal report that coined the term “environmental racism”) found race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities.

Even food, and where and how it is made available, is subject to environmental racism!

Right now, in America millions of low-income people live more than a mile from a supermarket, and most don’t have access to a vehicle. In these neighborhoods, food typically comes from fast food chains, convenience stores and drug stores, which often means decreased access to fresh fruits or vegetables and higher prices. Poor diets and obesity have been associated with these so-called “food deserts,” where obesity rates can be five times higher than in communities with access to fresh, healthy foods.

Most food literature on underserved communities focuses on poor nutritional quality of canned and pre-packaged food. Chemicals found in food packaging, however, are also harmful to our health. One of those chemicals is bisphenol A, or BPA. This chemical, banned from baby bottles and sippy cups nationwide, remains in use to line food cans. Intended as a protective barrier between the metal and the can’s contents, BPA can actually leach into the food we eat. The effects of leaching BPA are likely most detrimental for pregnant women, babies and children. People of color living in underserved communities have been found to have higher levels of BPA in their blood relative to the rest of the population. One possible explanation is greater reliance on canned foods that are often less expensive and more readily available.

The most significant problem facing people of color is the institutional and cultural racism which results in discrimination in access to services, goods and opportunities. Institutional racism involves polices, practices and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services and opportunities.

As economist William J. Kruvant described in a 1975 article: “Disadvantaged people are largely victims of middle- and upper-class pollution because they usually live closest to the sources of pollution – power plants, industrial installations, and in central cities where vehicle traffic is heaviest. Usually they have no choice. Discrimination created the situation, and those with wealth and influence have political power to keep polluting facilities away from their homes. Living in poverty areas is bad enough. Environmental racism makes it worse.”

I’ll close with a quote from writer Vann R. Newkirk II. He feels that discrimination in public planning is to blame.

“The environment is a system controlled and designed by people – and people can be racist.”

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!


This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through http://www.glennellis.com.


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