Opinion

During Historic Week for Environmentalism, We Can’t Forget About Toxic-Chemical Exposure

Both the House and Senate are considering bills that will weaken existing protections and disproportionately imperil communities of color.

Michele Roberts is co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance.
National Journal
Michele Roberts
June 4, 2014, 7:19 a.m.

This week, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced a sweep­ing set of en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions aimed at re­du­cing car­bon pol­lu­tion. If they sur­vive the in­ev­it­able in­dustry push­back, the changes are ex­pec­ted to sig­ni­fic­antly re­duce car­bon pol­lu­tion.

But as the na­tion’s at­ten­tion turns to the pol­lu­tion cre­ated by coal-fired plants, there are whole host of en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues — is­sues that deeply af­fect the coun­try’s fast-grow­ing minor­ity and low-in­come pop­u­la­tions — that should not be ig­nored. Right now, elec­ted mem­bers in both the House and the Sen­ate are work­ing to keep already lim­ited reg­u­la­tions on tox­ic chem­ic­als weak. If suc­cess­ful, the meas­ures will simply per­petu­ate and deep­en ex­ist­ing levels of en­vir­on­ment­al ra­cism.

In par­tic­u­lar, there are two pieces of le­gis­la­tion that would guar­an­tee con­tin­ued dis­pro­por­tion­ate harm to people of col­or from tox­ic chem­ic­als. The Sen­ate’s Chem­ic­al Safety Im­prove­ment Act  and the House’s draft Chem­ic­als in Com­merce Act both aim to change the Tox­ic Sub­stance Con­trol Act of 1976.

TSCA gov­erns tox­ic chem­ic­als, reg­u­lat­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of new or already ex­ist­ing sub­stances. TSCA “gran­ted EPA au­thor­ity to cre­ate a reg­u­lat­ory frame­work to col­lect data on chem­ic­als in or­der to eval­u­ate, as­sess, mit­ig­ate, and con­trol risks that may be posed by their man­u­fac­ture, pro­cessing, and use. TSCA provides a vari­ety of con­trol meth­ods to pre­vent chem­ic­als from pos­ing un­reas­on­able risk.”

The first bill to at­tempt to equip the TSCA with spe­cif­ic en­vir­on­ment­al health pro­tec­tions was the Safe Chem­ic­als Act. First in­tro­duced by the late Sen. Frank Lauten­berg, D-N.J., in 2010, then again in 2013, the Safe Chem­ic­als Act sought to ad­dress en­vir­on­ment­al “hot spots,” or as we health ad­voc­ates of­ten de­scribe them, “sac­ri­fice zones.” These areas — over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lated by people of col­or — are com­munit­ies where people are the most harmed by tox­ic chem­ic­als. Lauten­berg’s bill would have giv­en the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency the au­thor­ity to pri­or­it­ize ac­tion to provide pro­tec­tions for ‘hot spot’ com­munit­ies.

The Sen­ate’s CSIA and the House’s CI­CA con­spicu­ously make no men­tion of “hot spots.”

Both CSIA and CI­CA do con­tain “gag rules,” pro­vi­sions for pris­on terms and fin­an­cial pen­al­ties as high as $250,000 for doc­tors and nurses if they re­veal in­form­a­tion they re­ceive from EPA about chem­ic­als and their risks to “un­au­thor­ized people,” such as the lar­ger com­munity. In hot-spot areas, health care pro­viders are already dis­cour­aged from pub­licly link­ing the health ef­fects they are see­ing to the chem­ic­al ex­pos­ures in the com­munit­ies. Many of the com­pan­ies run­ning these fa­cil­it­ies of­ten in­sist that em­ploy­ees nev­er go to out­side health pro­viders. Work­ers fre­quently feel they risk los­ing their jobs if they go to an­oth­er med­ic­al pro­vider — even on a week­end or even­ing — oth­er than the “plant doc­tor.” Some hot-spot com­munit­ies even have clin­ics fun­ded by the pet­ro­chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions, and health care pro­viders are reti­cent to openly tie the chem­ic­al pol­lu­tion to the health im­pacts they are see­ing for fear of los­ing fund­ing.

While the le­gis­lat­ors on both sides of the aisle take money from the chem­ic­al in­dustry and their rep­res­ent­at­ives, the over­whelm­ing share of chem­ic­al-in­dustry dona­tions go to those in the Re­pub­lic­an Party. The Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics ana­lyzed Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion data, and found that more than $177 mil­lion was spent by the pet­ro­chem­ic­al in­dustry for the 2012 elec­tion and for the 2014 elec­tion cycle so far. More than 75 per­cent of this money went to the very Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers of Con­gress who are op­pos­ing en­vir­on­ment­al health pro­tec­tions in chem­ic­al re­form.

With luc­rat­ive and elab­or­ate schemes, chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions have man­aged to keep reg­u­la­tions on their products weak and in­ef­fect­ive since the cre­ation of TSCA. In the time since, more than 86,000 un­reg­u­lated chem­ic­als have in­vaded our products, our com­munit­ies, our homes, our mar­ket­place, and our bod­ies.

Peer-re­viewed stud­ies and emer­ging sci­ence on ill­ness linked to these chem­ic­als have been grow­ing. Thyroid dis­ease, dia­betes, heart dis­ease, in­fer­til­ity, neurodevel­op­ment­al is­sues (such as ADD and aut­ism), and can­cer are on the rise, par­tic­u­larly in com­munit­ies of col­or. We now know that the av­er­age Amer­ic­an baby is born with over 200 syn­thet­ic chem­ic­als in his or her body, ac­cord­ing to a study con­duc­ted by the En­vir­on­ment­al Work­ing Group. Tod­dlers and chil­dren of col­or of­ten test pos­it­ive for a high­er “bur­den” of some flame-re­tard­ant chem­ic­als on their hands than white chil­dren. Oth­er stud­ies such as one re­leased by the Chama­cos Pro­ject at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) and an­oth­er study out of New York Uni­versity found chem­ic­als in the bod­ies of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren linked to obesity. The Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren tested also demon­strated high­er levels of oth­er chem­ic­als in their bod­ies than their white peers.

Nowhere will you find more suf­fer­ing from chem­ic­als and their emis­sions than in com­munit­ies liv­ing at and near the sources of these chem­ic­als. Chem­ic­al plants, wa­ter-treat­ment plants, land­fills, re­cyc­ling cen­ters, rail­road tracks, roads for trans­port­ing chem­ic­als, stor­age tanks for chem­ic­als — all fre­quently built in his­tor­ic com­munit­ies of col­or where people have low in­comes and even less polit­ic­al clout.

Moss­ville, La., the Hou­s­ton Ship Chan­nel, Wilm­ing­ton, Del., Louis­ville, Ky., and Rich­mond, Cal­if., are just a few com­munit­ies that are home to people of col­or. They are also com­munit­ies where res­id­ents live with with on-go­ing chem­ic­al ex­pos­ure, high rates of res­pir­at­ory ill­ness, neur­o­lo­gic­al and re­pro­duct­ive health prob­lems, and even can­cer. Watch­ing chil­dren in these com­munit­ies wear­ing res­pir­at­ors, wait­ing in emer­gency rooms, and strug­gling for their very breaths is heart­break­ing to us.

To the chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions, this is “the price of do­ing busi­ness.”

Then there are the com­munit­ies like West, Texas, and Elk River, W.Va., where pre­vent­able chem­ic­al cata­strophes hap­pen far more of­ten than pub­licly re­por­ted. Even the far north can’t es­cape chem­ic­al tres­pass. The in­di­gen­ous people of the Arc­tic have tested pos­it­ive for high levels of tox­ic chem­ic­als in their bod­ies and struggle with high birth-de­fect and can­cer rates. Re­search­ers be­lieve this is hap­pen­ing be­cause per­sist­ent chem­ic­als drift north on wind and in wa­ter streams, and these chem­ic­als can ac­cu­mu­late, in­clud­ing in fish and an­im­als that res­id­ents rely on for sur­viv­al.

Who really pays the price for weak and nonex­ist­ent chem­ic­al reg­u­la­tions? Not the con­gres­sion­al rep­res­ent­at­ives who pro­tect the chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions from reg­u­la­tions. Not the chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions them­selves. People in the North are pay­ing a high price for our failed chem­ic­al reg­u­la­tions. So are the res­id­ents of some of the na­tion’s poorest and most pop­u­lous neigh­bor­hoods.

The House draft CI­CA adds a cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is to be con­sidered by reg­u­lat­ors and chem­ic­al makers when eval­u­at­ing the health and safety risks cre­ated by chem­ic­als. To us, “cost be­ne­fit” means that the people who are suf­fer­ing pay the costs while the chem­ic­al cor­por­a­tions reap the be­ne­fits.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Justice and Health Al­li­ance and oth­er groups are call­ing upon mem­bers of Con­gress to do the right thing by their con­stitu­ents.

Sup­port the en­vir­on­ment­al health rights of all people — no mat­ter their race or eth­ni­city. We all have the right to breathe clean air, to drink clean wa­ter, to live a healthy life free from harm­ful tox­ic chem­ic­als. En­vir­on­ment­al groups will con­tin­ue seek­ing justice. In this case, we seek to make Con­gress aware that we are voters who de­mand justice for com­munit­ies dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt by tox­ic chem­ic­als.

Michele Roberts is co-co­ordin­at­or of the En­vir­on­ment­al Justice and Health Al­li­ance. For more in­form­a­tion about en­vir­on­ment­al justice and TSCA re­form, see www.louis­vil­le­charter.org. In April, the al­li­ance joined with oth­er or­gan­iz­a­tions and re­leased Who’s In Danger,” a re­port on the dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk of chem­ic­al in­jury that Amer­ic­ans of col­or face due to the loc­a­tion of in­dus­tri­al fa­cil­it­ies. 

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

What We're Following See More »
DONATING TO FOOD BANKS
Government Buying $20 Million in Cheese
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Thanks to competition from Europe, America's cheese stockpiles are at a 30-year high. Enter the U.S. government, which announced it's buying 11 million pounds of the stuff (about $20 million). The cheese will be donated to food banks.

Source:
BRIEFER THAN TRUMP’S?
Clinton to Receive Classified Briefing on Saturday
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS
FHFA RULES APPLY
Judge: Freddie Mac Doesn’t Have to Open Its Books
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Freddie Mac shareholders cannot force the mortgage finance company to allow them to inspect its records, a federal court ruled Tuesday." A shareholder had asked the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to allow him to inspect its books and records, as Virginia law allows him to do. "The court held that Freddie shareholders no longer possess a right to inspect the company’s records because those rights had been transferred to the Federal Housing Finance Agency when the company entered into conservatorship in 2008."

Source:
MANY BEING TRADED ON BLACK MARKET
Pentagon Can’t Account for 750k Guns Provided to Iraq, Afghanistan
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The Pentagon has "provided more than 1.45 million firearms to various security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, including more than 978,000 assault rifles, 266,000 pistols and almost 112,000 machine guns." Trouble is, it can only account for about 700,000 of those guns. The rest are part of a vast arms trading network in the Middle East. "Taken together, the weapons were part of a vast and sometimes minimally supervised flow of arms from a superpower to armies and militias often compromised by poor training, desertion, corruption and patterns of human rights abuses."

Source:
SINCE JANUARY
Baltimore Is Spying on Its Residents from the Air
11 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department" has been using a Cessna airplane armed with sophisticated camera equipment "to investigate all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings." The public hasn't been notified about the system, funded by a private citizen.

Source:
×