Understanding Environmental Racism and How to Fight It
Understanding Environmental Racism and How to Fight It
Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha is a public health hero. In 2015, she exposed the widespread lead contamination that was poisoning her adolescent patients as well as thousands of other Flint, Michigan, residents. Her book, What the Eyes Don’t See, details the silent epidemic that occurred when city officials switched the drinking water supply from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in order to save money, leading to discolored, foul-smelling water that was contaminated with lead. Government officials ignored the complaints of the underserved residents whose problems they didn’t want to see.
“The Flint water crisis is one of the most emblematic examples of environmental racism, and lead contamination is a long-standing example of what environmental racism means and how it works,” Hanna-Attisha says. “Lead is an irreversible neurotoxin that can adversely impact the developing brains of children, setting communities back for generations.”
Despite the staggering realities of systemic racism that she’s confronted in her work, Hanna-Attisha is, in her own words, forever an optimist: She believes we can prevent environmental contaminants from having lasting impacts on our nation’s most vulnerable communities. That change begins with education and activism.
(For more on environmental racism, listen to The goop Podcast).
A Q&A with Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH
Environmental racism means that the burden of environmental contamination does not fall equally on our nation’s children. Some kids have the privilege of breathing clean air and drinking safe water, while other kids live in communities where the air and water are toxic. Environmental contaminants disproportionately burden minority and poor communities due to homes with crumbling infrastructure, poor nutrition, the ability of industries to operate and pollute in these communities without repercussions, and because these communities don’t have powerful political influence. Environmental contamination has the potential for lifelong health consequences such as asthma, hormone disruption, learning disorders, heart disease, cancer, and more. Environmental racism can span for generations and further exacerbates existing health and development disparities.
The field of environmental justice has been around for decades, and there are numerous examples of air pollution and other contaminants affecting certain populations more than others. The Flint water crisis is one of the most emblematic examples of environmental racism, and lead contamination is a long-standing example of what environmental racism means and how it works. Lead is an irreversible neurotoxin that can adversely impact the developing brains of children, setting communities back for generations.
Beyond lead contamination, there are so many other examples of environmental racism: It’s where factories that create pollution are located, disproportionately impacting certain communities; it’s where trash incinerators are located and release toxic particulates; it’s where there is a lack of public health infrastructure. If you look at southwest Detroit, there are oil refineries everywhere, and you can smell the toxicity in the air. This area has the worst air pollution in the entire state of Michigan, and it’s a poor and minority community. In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing communities with higher rates of air pollution being hit harder by COVID-19 because of preexisting lung damage.
Industries and corporations make a profit by polluting our most underserved communities. From making decisions about where to locate factories to lobbying for minimal regulations to undermining the science of environmental health, industries have a history of disproportionately contaminating communities of color and skirting accountability. When it comes to the lead industry, the history is maddening. There is a great book called Lead Wars that discusses the history of the lead industry practicing environmental racism. For example, they mandated the use of lead in public housing, even when they knew that lead was a poison and could disproportionately impact poor and minority people. They also practiced victim blaming by accusing people of not cleaning their houses or washing their children’s hands enough or dusting enough, and that’s why they had disproportionate exposures to the environment.
“We’ve been assuming that all these toxicants we spit out into the environment, disproportionately onto minority and poor communities, are safe.”
In the early 1900s, there was a woman named Alice Hamilton who graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and then went on to work with poor people and immigrants in Chicago. She noticed that people were becoming sick due to exposures in their work environment—she is now known as the mother of occupational medicine. At this time, there was lead in gasoline, supposedly to prevent a noise called “engine knocking” even though experts knew lead was poison. Alice Hamilton testified against the use of lead in gas and warned of the health risks. But the lead industry hired their own scientists to convince the US government that lead was safe. They said lead was a gift from god.
One of General Motors’ scientists who was an advocate for lead in gasoline, Robert Kehoe, proposed that if scientists who opposed lead could prove that it was not safe, then they’d take it out of the gasoline. This philosophy of proving something is not safe before deeming it bad set us on our current public health trajectory where we have the unchecked use of thousands of chemicals. And in terms of lead, it has silently poisoned generations of children.
The story of the lead industry is not unique. We’ve been assuming that all these toxicants we spit out into the environment, disproportionately onto minority and poor communities, are safe. This has shifted the burden onto scientists to prove that things are unsafe. And in cases where scientists have found that things are toxic, industries will still push back, refute the scientific findings, and call for more research. This is the exact opposite of how we should be governed. We should assume something is dangerous before we deem it safe. In public health, this is called the precautionary principle.
The Flint water crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic have so many similarities and lessons learned. There is a lack of public health infrastructure, a disrespect of science, and a lack of regulations to keep people safe. In this administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has been all but dismantled along with many science advisory panels. The government is leaning more on industry scientists than on independent, unbiased scientists. We have seen a deliberate weakening of our environmental regulations as well as coordinated and well-funded efforts to minimize science and the scientific community that is saying these toxicants are a problem, while lobbying to weaken public health protections.
This happened in the 1930s with the sugar industry, which funded biased science to say that sugar wasn’t unhealthy and wasn’t a contributor to obesity, but instead it was fat’s fault. This same playbook has been used by the tobacco industry, the fast food industry, the lead industry, and the coal industry, funded by dark money that attacks science and limits regulations.
Before the Flint water crisis, nobody had a doubt that our water was safe. People thought: We’re in Michigan, surrounded by the Great Lakes, and there must be rules, right? Flint really opened the nation’s eyes to understanding that there are not adequate regulations to keep our communities safe. For example, the Lead and Copper Rule designed to protect our water is grossly outdated, doesn’t respect scientific findings, and is not protective of people’s health. The action level is set to fifteen parts per billion of lead and doesn’t mandate the removal of lead pipes, despite the fact that scientists, including the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have stated that there is no safe level of lead exposure. This is just one example of how regulations don’t fully protect people, even if there are decades of science to draw reasonable recommendations from.
The impact of climate change globally already disproportionately falls on our most vulnerable communities. There’s a growing recognition that people who live in certain regions, like the coasts, as well as poor and minority communities are going to be some of the first communities hit hard by climate change and will become some of our first climate refugees who will be displaced. In developing countries, we’re already seeing these impacts in areas that are affected by monsoons, slides, wildfires, and other extreme weather conditions where there isn’t the capacity to handle this fallout. Similar to what we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change will likely also exacerbate underlying inequality.
Despite the story of Flint being a crime committed with absolute indifference against a vulnerable population, it is also a story of resistance and hope. It is a playbook of what we can all do to make a difference because everyday people—moms, students, doctors, pastors, activists, journalists, and scientists—came together to stand up for their communities. They made it clear that they weren’t okay with their water being poisoned and they weren’t okay with children being impacted for the rest of their life course. Now Flint’s water is switched back, and we are building a model of hope and recovery.
“We can’t be bystanders or assume other people are going to fix this for us when the government isn’t delivering basic clean water and clean air to its people. We have to be the change.”
There is so much we can do within our communities to fight for environmental justice through voting, organizing, holding elected officials accountable, running for office, and demanding better environmental protections. The list is so long. These stories have played out through environmental history from Lois Gibbs to Rachel Carson to Erin Brockovich. These were people who made an enormous impact because they cared about their children and their community. We see it now with climate change work, the Black Lives Matter movement, and with the Parkland kids. It’s incredible to see young folks doing the work because absolutely things can be done to make change. We can’t shrug our shoulders and assume this is the way things will always be. It can’t just be privileged kids who have access to clean water. We can’t be bystanders or assume other people are going to fix this for us when the government isn’t delivering basic clean water and clean air to its people. We have to be the change.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, is founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She is a pediatrician, an activist, and an author, who is known for uncovering the Flint water crisis, which she describes in her book, What the Eyes Don’t See.
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