Emory Report

November 15, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 12

First Person:

Frumkin on health, the environment and social justice

Remember the old chestnut about rights and opportunities in the United States? This is a great country, it declares. All of us, rich and poor alike, have the same right to sleep under bridges.

Of course, it doesn't work that way. The rich don't sleep under bridges. The poor and disenfranchised get more than their share of life's adversities-homelessness, disease, hunger, grinding jobs, bad schools, substandard housing.

But what may come as a surprise is that environmental hazards are distributed in much the same way. Like other hardships, toxins are not equal opportunity exposures.

Indeed, the poor, the marginalized and people of color are disproportionately exposed to hazardous waste sites, incinerators and factories. More than a decade ago, research by the United Church of Christ showed that a community's racial composition, better than any other social or environmental variable, predicted the presence of a hazardous waste facility in the community. Communities without a hazardous waste facility averaged a 12 percent minority population. Those with one hazardous waste facility averaged a 24 percent minority population. And those with two or more hazardous waste facilities averaged a 38 percent minority population.

In a case study of Houston, Professor Robert Bullard, now of Clark Atlanta University, showed that six of eight municipal incinerators and all five municipal landfills were located in black neighborhoods. In a case study of Baton Rouge, La., the 10 largest white zip codes contained five hazardous waste sites, while the 10 largest black zip codes contained 15 hazardous waste sites. Total waste generated was estimated to be 663 times greater in the black neighborhoods than in the white neighborhoods.

Hazardous waste is not the only environmental pollutant to be distributed this way. So is air pollution. A 1992 study quantified how many Americans of each major ethnic group lived in Air Quality Nonattainment Areas-areas where, for at least part of the year, air pollutant levels are high enough to threaten health.

The numbers were different for each pollutant, but the pattern was consistent: For ozone, 53 percent of whites, 62 percent of blacks and 71 percent of Hispanics lived in nonattainment areas. For particulates, the proportions were 15 percent of whites, 17 percent of blacks and 34 percent of Hispanics; and for lead the proportions were 6 percent of whites, 9 percent of blacks and 19 percent of Hispanics.

But the major source of lead isn't air pollution-it's paint, peeling and chipping from the walls of substandard housing. Here, too, disproportionate racial impact is apparent, as reflected by the blood lead levels of children. In the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the prevalence of elevated blood lead levels among 1-to-2-year-old children was 21.6 percent for blacks, 10.1 percent for Mexican-Americans and 8.5 percent for whites. Among 3-to-5-year-old children the pattern was the same: 20 percent of black children, 6.8 percent of Mexican-American children and 3.7 percent of white children. Even before children can walk, they begin to accumulate the effects of disproportionate hazardous exposures.

The workplace is a special kind of microenvironment that illustrates this pattern well. My colleague Darryl Walker and I recently used Department of Labor data to identify the 20 "whitest" occupations, the 20 "blackest" occupations and the 20 most Hispanic occupations in the United States, and we tallied the workplace injury rates for each. Together, the whitest occupations had an injury rate of 8.5 per 100 workers per year. In the most Hispanic occupations the rate was 23.9, and in the blackest occupations the rate was 55.3. These data refer to injuries, not toxic chemical exposures, but we have to suspect a similar pattern for these hazards as well.

This is not just a U.S. problem; in a globalizing world, where manufacturing industries are rapidly relocating to developing nations, we export our hazards, and the "exposed class" now includes the workers and communities of Mexico, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and other countries of cheap labor. Want a reminder of where the polluting, labor-intensive factories are moving? Pick a half-dozen items of your clothing, footwear, sporting goods or electronics, and look at the labels. You will see few countries famous for their strict environmental practices and protective labor legislation. As in the United States, so in the rest of the world: we ghettoize hazardous exposures.

Some argue that polluting industries and facilities, far from being oppressive, represent an opportunity for the poor. Faced with limited ways to earn money, the argument goes, a poor community may choose to welcome an incinerator or a dump site (or a poor country may opt to recruit polluting industries). And no well-intentioned environmentalist should deprive the poor of this opportunity.

Well, maybe. But there is a name for a life lived between the Scylla of hunger and the Charybdis of toxic exposures, and that name is injustice. If people are hungry and desperate enough to accept toxic exposures as the best available alternative, we should not rest easy with their choice. Instead, we should strive to improve economic opportunities for those in need even as we minimize or eliminate toxic exposures altogether. We should protect the health of the least fortunate among us, and we should protect the environment we all share.

The environmental justice movement has arisen around these facts and principles. For many commentators--Philip Shabecoff in A Fierce Green Fire, Mark Dowie in Losing Ground, Robert Gottlieb in Forcing the Spring--this amounts to an historic transformation. There was a time when environmentalism was the preserve of white men determined to defend birds, trees, good hunting and pristine views. Social justice was nowhere on the agenda. We have come a long way since then.

Environmentalism is not just a question of aesthetics, not just a question of ecological science. Progress toward a safe, healthy environment must also have, at its heart, a commitment to social justice.

Howard Frumkin is associate professor and chair of environmental and occupational health.

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