‘We can’t breathe’—stop the pollution in Black communities

Right here, in Minneapolis, America witnessed a Black man lose his life because he was unable to breathe. The killing of George Floyd was yet another example of how so many systems have no regard for the value of Black life. For many of us in the Black community, however, the killing of Floyd was just another reminder that “We can’t Breathe” extends beyond just policing.  

Black Americans have disproportionately higher rates of death related to COVID-19, higher rates of underlying health conditions and higher respiratory traumas. Literally, Black people can’t breathe. 

So, the question is: Why? 

Why are Black Americans and other people of color suffering from higher rates of respiratory illness? 

Although there isn’t a single cause, here are three facts we know: 

Fact one: People of color and low-income people are vastly more likely to live in close proximity to industrial scale incinerators, which are facilities that burn waste and release toxic emissions and byproducts into the air. A recent study found that 80% of incinerators in the United States are located in low-income and/or communities of color. 

Fact two: Those who live closest to incinerators have higher rates of respiratory and other health issues.

Fact three: Those with underlying respiratory and health conditions are impacted by incinerators at greater rates than those without.  

Many communities of color across the nation are finally beginning to push back. After 33 years of fruitless efforts, a coalition of Black activists in Detroit was able to shut down an incinerator that had contributed to the lack of clean air for Black residents. 

Here in Minnesota, these incinerators also impact our communities of color—including the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, just blocks from north Minneapolis. Air pollution from HERC threatens the most vulnerable in communities around it, and taxpayers have subsidized HERC with millions of dollars over the years.

These facilities also drive health care costs. A study found that an incinerator in Baltimore has caused $55 million in respiratory hospitalizations and other health impacts. 

This shouldn’t surprise you. Burning municipal waste—a mix of every material you can imagine, including plastics and metals—produces highly toxic emissions and byproducts including lead and mercury.

Trash incinerators emit nitrogen oxide pollution, which is specifically linked to respiratory ailments, including irritation of the nose, throat and lungs. Carbon monoxide is also released, which contributes to ground-level ozone and contributes to asthma. Sulfur dioxide is in the filthy mix as well—a pollutant that can aggravate asthma, even with extremely limited exposure

As city, county and state elected officials examine policies adversely affecting communities of color, it is critical that they reconsider the huge subsidies for trash incinerators like HERC that are hurting the most vulnerable in our communities.

To provide Black communities with the ability to breathe, we must dream bigger than surviving a police encounter—although that is deeply important. We must stop investing in systems that target and disproportionately impact us—including trash incinerators that spew pollutants.

Mike Griffin, community organizer & activist