Environmental racism polluting communities of color

More Black children than White have chronic ills

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. The lead poisoning of children in Flint was only the latest example of environmental racism in the U.S. Unfortunately, Flint’s water scandal is a symptom of a much larger disease.

The activist organization Greenaction has stated that environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.

Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color.

Research has shown a higher incidence of emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other pulmonary diseases in these communities. Some link the asthma epidemic among African Americans to industrial toxins wafting over poor neighborhoods.

Asthma affects twice as many Black children as White, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Its rate among African American kids doubled from 2001 to 2009.

Research by the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has shown that lead from plumbing, house paints and contaminated soils reaches many poor children of all races. But in an unexplained disparity, as far back as 1988, studies have concluded that Black children, regardless of their families’ incomes, are much more likely than White children to have unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood.

Many health experts say lead is the most widespread environmental hazard in minority communities. The effects of lead poisoning can extend from headaches and nausea to permanent brain damage, especially in children.

In 1987, Toxic Waste and Race (the seminal report that coined the term “environmental racism”) found race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities. Even food, where and how it is made available, is subject to environmental racism!

Right now in America millions of low-income people live more than a mile from a supermarket, and most don’t have access to a vehicle. In these neighborhoods, food typically comes from fast food chains, convenience stores and drug stores, which often means decreased access to fresh fruits or vegetables and higher prices.

Poor diets and obesity have been associated with these so-called “food deserts,” where obesity rates can be five times higher than in communities with access to fresh, healthy foods.

Underscoring the significance of these issues, access to proper nutrition and healthy environments were among the conditions recently dealt with in a three-year partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and five community-based organizations. The initiative, Partnering4health, led to the reduction of some chronic diseases, in part by fortifying the environment with educational and wholesome messages and education in communities.

Most food literature on underserved communities focuses on poor nutritional quality of canned and pre-packaged food. Chemicals found in food packaging, however, are also harmful to our health.

One of those chemicals is bisphenol A, or BPA. This chemical, banned from baby bottles and sippy cups nationwide, remains in use to line food cans. Intended as a protective barrier between the metal and the can’s contents, BPA can actually leach into the food we eat. The effects of leaching BPA are likely most detrimental for pregnant women, babies and children.

People of color living in underserved communities have been found to have higher levels of BPA in their blood relative to the rest of the population. One possible explanation is greater reliance on canned foods that are often less expensive and more readily available.

The most significant problem facing people of color is the institutional and cultural racism that results in discrimination in access to services, goods and opportunities. Institutional racism involves polices, practices and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities.

As economist William J. Kruvant described in a 1975 article, “Disadvantaged people are largely victims of middle- and upper-class pollution because they usually live closest to the sources of polluting power plants, industrial installations, and in central cities where vehicle traffic is heaviest. Usually they have no choice.

Discrimination created the situation, and those with wealth and influence have political power to keep polluting facilities away from their homes. Living in poverty areas is bad enough. Environmental racism makes it worse.”

I’ll close with a quote from writer Vann R. Newkirk II, who feels that discrimination in public planning is to blame: “The environment is a system controlled and designed by people — and people can be racist.”


Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine.