Zip Code Privilege: Existing in Environmental Racism.
A discussion that raises awareness of environmental racism and its effects on communities of color.
In the latest news regarding COVID-19, we've been informed about its significant impact on the African American community. We're more at-risk due to our pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and other diseases. But when discussing the high rate of deaths in the Black community due to the virus, it's essential to note other factors like healthcare disparities, poverty, food deserts, and even environmental racism as contributing factors as well. This is the perfect time to bring awareness to how harmful environmental activities disproportionately affects minorities in the United States.
What it is.
Environmental racism is a concept from the environmental justice movement that looks into the policies and practices that discriminate communities which mainly consist of Black, Indigenous, and POC. Moreso, it is a type of discrimination where people of low-income or minority communities are forced to live in close proximity to sewage plants, landfills, coal-burning and other toxic facilities. The economic inequalities of such communities largely contributes to their accessibility to hazardous chemicals and more. Chronic (long-term) exposure to these polluted areas have significantly increased public health conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and more. Environmental justice is almost non-existent in the Black and Brown communities. Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Overall, environmental racism is a public health crisis where environmental justice is desperately needed.
What it does.
Being exposed to degraded environments is a common phenomenon throughout the U.S. In fact, there are even some communities that are known as "Cancer Alley" due to their incredibly high number of deaths (via cancer) as a result of their exposure to environmental carcinogens. A number of large corporations introduce themselves to minority communities with the intention of providing jobs and other monetary gains. In hindsight, one may view this as a beneficial opportunity for the community but when further analysis is needed to evaluate how these companies will impact the environment as well as human health, little evidence is shown. The "waste" from chemical companies and other toxic facilities are often disposed of in bodies of water; dispersed in the air; or dissolved in the soil. A landfill is a common example of a degraded environment that affects the health of others. Landfills are the third largest source of methane (a greenhouse gas) emissions in the U.S.. People who live near landfills are exposed to large amounts of atmospheric methane which can cause major respiratory issues. Another example are incinerators which generate a variety of pollutants such as trace metals, dioxins, hydrochloric acid, and carbon monoxide. Industrial facilities can produce chemicals such as arsenic which can leach into groundwater. This is very unfortunate because arsenic can poison water and many communities depend on groundwater as their drinking source. Pollution in these entities have lead to minorities facing a greater risk of health damage.
Here are a few general facts:
70% of the country’s contaminated waste sites are located near low-income housing
African Americans are three times more likely to die from airborne pollution than the overall population of the U.S.
Black children are three times more likely to go into the emergency room for an asthma attack than a white child, and twice as likely to die from asthma attacks than a white child
Nearly 8 out of 10 African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-burning plant
African Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than they cause and Hispanics at 63%
African Americans are more likely to die from lung disease, but less likely to smoke
And the list goes on...
Environmental racism and its unfortunate health risks are everywhere. So far during my 23 years of living, I've lived in 5 different states: Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. After doing preliminary research, I've noticed that minority communities in each of these states have suffered at the hands of environmental racism. I'll detail a few examples below.
I first gained an interest in environmental policy and affairs when I discovered an area in Louisiana known as "Cancer Alley", a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The nickname was coined due to the large number of petrochemical facilities in the area. Additionally, the area consists of predominantly black and low-income communities where many of the residents have died due to the exposure of cancer-causing chemicals. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), parishes (counties) such as Iberville, St. Charles, St. John, and St. James, all have some of the worst air quality in the United States. For example, in St. John the Baptist Parish, their air consists of nearly 50 toxic chemicals with chloroprene and ethylene oxide being the top two pollutants. Chloroprene is produced by the chemical company Denka (formally known as DuPont) and the facility presents the greatest risk of cancer from air pollution than any factory in the U.S. Residents in the area (which again mainly consists of Black people) face a cancer risk of 50 times the national average in addition to other chemicals being emitted by several nearby facilities as well. Watch this informative video of Robert Taylor, a resident of Reserve, LA, as he details how almost every household in his community has someone that has died from cancer due to exposure to carcinogens from chemical facilities. It is truly heartbreaking. If you would like to read more examples of environmental racism in Louisiana, be sure to check out a New Orleans' neighborhood known as Gordon Plaza where Black residents are living on top of a toxic landfill site where they blatantly express how they're 'just waiting to die.'
Robert Taylor leading a march in St. John the Baptist Parish
According to the Virginia Mercury, environmental justice is not a clear priority for the state of Virginia. In areas such as Newport News and Norfolk, residents are being poisoned by industrial facilities that produce coal dust. Coal dust is a fine powdered form of coal, which is created by the crushing, grinding, or pulverizing of coal. Chronic exposure to coal dust can lead to an increased incidence of heart and respiratory diseases like asthma and lung cancer.The vulnerable residents in these areas have reached out to government officials to seek air monitors and a protective wall with a plan to phase out coal dust at these facilities. In Richmond, the state's capital, children at Richmond Public Schools are being exposed to high levels of lead in the school's drinking water. Luckily there are citizens who are taking action against these harmful occurrences. Environmental justice advocate, Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz, is the founder of the United Parents Against Lead & Other Environmental Hazards. She also serves as the coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. Shabazz formed this group after she discovered that her young son had been poisoned by lead. She's made it her mission to work with government officials to establish more preventative measures against lead poisoning and other environmental hazards. If you would like some additional information regarding environmental justice in Virginia, check out this article regarding Lorton, VA's poor air quality. Lorton is the home to three landfills, a sewage sludge incinerator and one of the largest and dirtiest trash incinerators in the nation, as well as a dumping site for Washington, D.C. residents.
In the state of Texas, there are a large number of environmental racism encounters, especially in Houston, Texas. In fact, according to the American Lung Association's 2019 “State of the Air” report, Houston ranked as the 9th most polluted city in the nation for ozone. Houston's poor air quality is mainly due to smog or ozone pollution and particle pollution, also called soot. Exposure to these can increase the risk of asthma attacks, cancer, developmental damage and even premature death. The air quality can become even more harmful when disaster strikes at nearby chemical facilities. In March 2019, eight tanks at Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) in Deer Park caught fire for over three days. The tanks contained benzene, xylene, toluene, and naphtha which are all components of gasoline. The fires from the tanks created a dark, smokey cloud which settled over Houston's ship channel and the surrounding neighborhoods which mainly consists of POC. The unfortunate event endangered the residents with side effects that include headaches, dizziness, vomiting, memory loss, damage to the nervous system and more. It's not surprising that industrial factories plague the Black and Latino communities whereas in places such as the Woodlands, which mainly consists of White residents, production and placement of these industries are restricted. Did you know that 43% of 5th ward families (predominately black community) in Houston have a cancer diagnosis? News like this truly breaks my heart. Our health shouldn't suffer at the pockets of large corporations.
A plume of smoke rises from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas.
What can I do?
Here are some simple ways of how you can be an advocate for environmental justice: first and foremost, it's very important that we educate ourselves and others. Learning about environmental racism and how it can affect the people of my community has caused me to want to learn more about the dangers of this pandemic. In fact, it is one of the many reasons as to why I am pursing a graduate degree in environmental toxicology (the study of how chemicals and pollutants affect the environment and human health). Expanding my knowledge in environmental policies is my first step to being an advocate for environmental change. For you, feel free to stay in the loop with the local news to see how the communities in your city are affected by things such as air, soil, and water pollution. Read articles and research papers about how environmental factors play a role on chronic diseases. But if you're not much of a reader, watching documentaries serve as an educational opportunity for you to begin your journey of being an advocate for environmental justice. I recently watched a Netflix documentary called There's Something in the Water, filmed by Ellen Page based on the novel written by Dr. Ingrid Waldron. The eyeopening film depicts extremely personal and political dialogue of powerful women on the frontlines battling environmental racism throughout Nova Scotia. The documentary explores the topic of environmental racism, shining a light on the Canadian government’s current and historical decisions to prioritize the profits of large corporations over the health of Indigenous and Black communities. I thoroughly recommend this film if you would like to learn more about how these communities sought change from environmental crisis.
Following your ability to educate yourself on the basics of environmental racism, you should look into joining an environmental justice advocacy group/organization within your community. Social media could definitely help you with this task. Green for All and Goldman Environmental Prize are both leading environmental justice organizations whom contain a plethora of information regarding environmental, economic, and racial justice. Feel free to follow their social media pages. Currently, I am a volunteer with Nicole's Garden, a nonprofit organization where we aim to educate and serve at-risk communities (food deserts) throughout the Greater Houston area about the importance of eating healthy and creating indoor gardening techniques for non-green spaces. In addition, we explore how these communities have a higher incidence of chronic diseases such as asthma than other parts of Houston, TX. After joining a group, you can further get yourself involved by reaching out to government officials to see how they are making progress with environmental policies. It is well known that additional environmental policies and regulations are needed to protect minority communities from the dangers of degraded environments. Participating in environmental justice activities within your community is a beneficial duty.
So again, when discussing why African Americans are dying at a faster rate than any other race in the nation, don't forget to mention how the systemic injustice of environmental racism is an essential factor to the health of our communities as well. In order for us to have a sustainable environment for a sustainable future, we must become advocates for environmental justice. Please feel free to follow my sources tagged above and my essentials down below as well as reach out to me for further discussion. I am open to all ideas and opinions. Remember, that your zip code is a privilege. Although things may not negatively affect your specific community, let's continue to help those who are in need; be a voice for the voiceless. If you would like to examine what chemicals you're being exposed to in your own backyard, check out the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Program website for more information. Please continue to stay safe and healthy.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Xi's Takeaway Essentials:
Explore environmental justice advocacy groups within your community.
Help spread awareness of the dangers/impacts of environmental racism.
Vote for elected officials that acknowledge the effects of climate change and other environmental factors and how to mitigate these issues.