By Mark A. Mitchell MD, MPH, President, Mitchell Environmental Health Associates, Co-Chair, Environmental Health Task Force, National Medical Association
This article was originally published in the August 2013 edition of "The Legislator," a publication of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators
In 1978, Ward Transformer Company illegally sprayed 31,000 gallons of PCB on the roadsides of 14 different North Carolina counties covering more than 280 miles. State officials were required to remove the contaminated soil, which Governor Jim Hunt then decided to bury in Warren County, NC, a predominantly African-American community. Local residents were outraged and organized a protest to stop the dumping of this toxic material in their community. More than 500 people were arrested at the dumpsite, and the event drew civil rights and environmental activists from all over the country. This was the birth of the American environmental justice movement.
Subsequent studies at the international, national, state, and local levels have consistently shown that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, and that the correlation of this exposure with race is greater than with income. This is clearly an issue of civil rights, environmental rights, and public health—otherwise known as environmental justice.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement” of all people in the decision-making process of environmental policies that directly affect their environments—the places where people live, work, play, pray, and go to school.
EPA defines “fair treatment” as meaning that no community should disproportionately suffer negative environmental consequences from these policies and “meaningful involvement” is defined as involvement at a point where the community can affect the decisions being made by corporate or governmental policy makers.
Despite EPA’s definition of “fair treatment,” “meaningful involvement,” and “environmental justice,” communities of color continue to be exposed to higher rates of air pollution, water pollution, toxics in products and contaminated properties. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and dumps, contaminated Brownfield properties, trash incinerators, power plants, chemical plants, auto body shops, nail salons, and refineries than other Americans.
This is not only a historical problem, but continues today due to current environmental policy that promotes this cycle of environmental hazards being continually placed in these communities. Dr. Ben Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” in reference to this institutional challenge. The National Medical Association (NMA), the oldest and largest organization of African-American physicians, is concerned about the health effects of environmental racism and the contribution to health disparities.
Health conditions that are affected by environmental exposures include not only asthma and lead poisoning, but also other conditions such as lupus, learning disabilities, hyperactivity disorders, depression, low birth weight, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Even sudden death in young African-American athletes who have no known heart disease has been shown to be associated with air pollution.
We now know that over 120 health conditions are associated with environmental exposure. In response to these issues, the NMA formed its Environmental Health Task Force to advocate for environmental health and environmental justice policies on a national, state, and local level.
Most people are completely unaware that it is perfectly legal to add toxic chemicals to most consumer products and that this affects African Americans disproportionately. Lead is put in tire weights, fishing sinkers, and even Grecian Formula hair coloring—even though there are safer, non-lead alternatives to each of these products. Low-income people are more likely to get mercury dental amalgam fillings due to Medicaid reimbursement policies.
Although there is little research to document it, hair care products targeted toward African-American women seem to be more toxic than other products, according to researchers in the field. One study shows that there is a correlation between the number of scalp burns in women getting perms and the rate of uterine fibroids—presumably due to estrogens in hair care products getting into the blood stream and promoting fibroid tumor growth.
One of the most toxic products found in the Skin Deep online database of cosmetics was “Africa’s Best Organics Touch-Up Plus Organic Conditioning No-Lye Relaxer System for New Growth, Regular (2009 formulation).” Although the name makes it sound perfectly safe and natural, it has several ingredients known to cause cancer, reproductive health effects, allergies, endocrine disruption, immune system damage, cellular damage, skin irritation, and other organ toxicity. Who is supposed to protect the consumer from dangerous chemicals?
The federal laws that are supposed to regulate these chemicals—the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Safe Cosmetics Act—are much too weak to allow federal agencies to protect public health. Although there are proposals in Congress to reform these statutes, powerful corporate interests have been successful in blocking meaningful reform so far. In the absence of federal chemical reform, states are taking the lead to address this issue, and should continue to do so for two reasons, 1) to protect public health on a state level, and 2) to compel special interests to engage in honest efforts to promote comprehensive reform of federal laws.
For example, states are taking active steps to regulate Bisphenol A (BPA), one of the most commonly produced chemicals. This chemical is used in hard polycarbonate plastics, reusable food and beverage containers, on thermal receipts, and in the lining of food and beverage cans. This chemical is associated with breast and prostate cancer, as well as diabetes and obesity. Several states have banned BPA in baby bottles and infant formula cans, prompting manufacturers to stop producing them and also prompting the federal government to follow state leads to ban these uses nationally. Other states have banned BPA in sippy cups, thermal receipts and reusable food and drink containers.
Similarly, states are banning brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, some of which were also banned on the federal level. These flame retardants are associated with cancer, learning and developmental disabilities, endocrine disruption, as well as other effects, and more importantly, they build up in breast milk and other tissues in the body.
Concentrations of several types of flame retardant chemicals are at higher levels in low-income children. In addition to their toxicity, flame retardants are being phased out because they do not seem to work in decreasing fires in real world (rather than laboratory) conditions; in addition they contribute to the toxicity of smoke inhalation, which causes 50% to 80% of all fire deaths.
Sadly, the chemical industry has targeted African-American state legislators to promote keeping these toxic products on the shelf using a series of deceptions. Industry-sponsored sham community organizations, such as Citizens for Fire Safety and industry supported physicians, imply that White legislators are trying to ban these substances because they do not care about the increased fire deaths in communities of color, or that the WIC program will not be able to get BPA-free infant formula. Thankfully, many Black state legislators are being educated about this deception and are pushing back.
Additionally, states are moving forward in environmental justice policy by changing the policies that promote environmental hazards being placed in communities of color. Connecticut, for example, has a law that identifies environmental justice communities in the state, and requires community notification and offsetting environmental benefits for any new potentially hazardous facilities sited in these communities.
In conclusion, there is compelling evidence of the health effects of environmental hazards that are disproportionately located in communities of color and likely contribute to health disparities. There are a number of policy changes that can be enacted on state and federal levels to correct these often overlooked injustices as systemic, as well as specific responses to state and local environmental justice issues. These policy changes can greatly reduce health disparities on a statewide basis.
The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) is a membership association representing more than 600 African-American state legislators hailing from 42 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. NBCSL members represent more than 50 million Americans of various racial backgrounds. NBCSL monitors federal and state activity and provides this information to its members through policy symposiums and conferences. Each year, NBCSL members pass policy resolutions that directly impact federal and state policy. The organization focuses on issues that directly impact US domestic policy and is committed to policies that positively affect all Americans.