Environmental Racism, American Policy, and the Health of Under-Privileged Communities
By Meena Puram, Solon High School, Solon, Ohio, USA
Environmental racism is the phenomenon in which major environmental pollutants (as well as the facilities that cause them) are highly concentrated in cities with high poverty rates and a larger population of people of color. This phenomenon has been recurring in America for decades and is shown mainly through the devastating events in Flint, Michigan and the Cancer Alley of Louisiana. In the meantime, little action is being taken to address these issues, despite it being a part of a larger trend of institutional racism that leaves underprivileged communities with dangerously high rates of chronic diseases.
Air and water pollution have had irreversible and devastating effects on human health for the past century. Actions are being taken to address the root of these issues through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these solutions are often most effectively implemented in wealthy white communities, while people of color suffer the most detrimental ramifications. According to the 2022 American Census, African Americans make up around 54% of the population in Flint, Michigan and the poverty rate is 46%. The crisis initially began in 2014, when the city switched their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. However, during the time of the switch, city officials were aware of the poor condition of the Flint River due to pollution and the inability of the city to treat the water. Laura Pulido argues that the water crisis is a result of “Flint [being] considered disposable by virtue of being predominantly poor and black” (Pulido, 2016). In the years following the water switch, 24.4% of Flint’s population had both presumptive depression and PTSD and 76.6% of Flint’s children showed results for elevated lead levels in the blood (Reuben et al., 2022; Ezell et al., 2022).
Similarly, the urban water crisis of Jackson, Mississippi (which is 82.6% black according to the 2022 American Census) has caused increased rates of heart disease, asthma, stroke, kidney disease, and diabetes (Meng, 2022).
The effects of air pollution on black communities is also seen in Mossville, Louisiana. The Cancer Alley is a strip of land that is filled with almost 150 petrochemical plants that release toxic pollutants such as chloroprene, formaldehyde, and 1,3 butadiene in the air, which are all notable carcinogens (Byrd, 2019). Rather than taking responsibility, the plants continue to dispute air quality guidelines, claiming that “the safe amount of chloroprene in the air should be 156 times greater than what the EPA has determined” (Lartey and Laughland, 2019). Mossville was a town founded by freed African Americans following the Civil War, and the chemical plants today represent the unwillingness of powerful institutions to move forward from centuries of control over racial minorities: control in which wealthy business owners continue to capitalize off of the labor and land of African Americans, while compromising their health and thus, their freedom.
RISE St. James is an organization founded by Sharon Lavigne dedicated to fighting environmental racism and protecting the people of the Cancer Alley against Formosa Plastics (Trimble, 2022). Formosa Plastics would have been responsible for the emission of over 800 tons of pollutants into the air had it not been for the Louisiana State government revoking the company’s air permits.
Trends similar to those listed above are also seen in the high levels of soot in Pahokee, Florida; polychlorinated biphenyls (known carcinogens) in Cheraw, South Carolina and Uniontown, Alabama and the oil refineries in Houston, Texas (Colarossi, 2020).
Indoor air pollutants are 2-5 times more concentrated than outdoor pollutants (EPA, 2020). They mainly come in the form of nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). However, exposure to these pollutants are highest among those with “lower education, those with higher poverty income ratios, and Mexican Americans” (American Journal of Public Health, 2011). These circumstances could be traced back to the White Flight of the 1950s, in which Federal Aids allowed white families to move out of urban neighborhoods to seek better quality housing, while preventing racial minorities from being able to do the same.
Looking at environmental racism on a more local level, the “Not In My Back Yard phenomenon” (NIMBY) is a phenomenon that describes one’s unwillingness to have certain undesirable facilities in their neighborhood. This phenomenon poses a threat to environmental justice regarding the placement of landfills, waste disposal facilities, and in some cases, large factories. However, it’s often only the most privileged communities that are able to refuse “hosting” facilities, while those in poverty face the repercussions of the heavy amounts of pollutants brought into their own neighborhood because of this.
The persistent effects of centuries of oppression paired with air and water pollution continuing to be ignored put people of color at disadvantages when it comes to accessing a healthy and safe environment. Improving the quality of the air and water for all members of society, regardless of economic level and race, depends on improving policy to be more oriented towards the protection of those most vulnerable to deficits in air and water quality. Environmental racism is rooted in power imbalances between citizens, and while the power of some comes from benefiting from a cycle of racism and poverty, we must combat that power by raising awareness of this issue in our own communities and voting for officials that will actively make strides towards protecting everyone from a worsening climate. Access to clean air and water is not a privilege reserved for the white and wealthy of America; it is a human right.
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Trimble, A. (September 14, 2022). Louisiana Court Vacates Air Permits for Formosa’s Massive Petrochemical Complex in Cancer Alley. https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2022/louisiana-court-vacates-air-permits-for-formosas-massive-petrochemical-complex-in-cancer-alley