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
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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.

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