Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Environmental Racism, Fueling Toxic Exposure and Increasing the Burden of Disease Among Michigan's Communities of Color

Environmental Racism, Fueling Toxic Exposure and Increasing the Burden of Disease Among Michigan's Communities of Color By Jonathan Sharp


Due to past racial segregation, the inaccessibility of affordable land, and lack of political power to fight corporations, many communities of color are stuck living near pollution hotspots such as landfills, industrial facilities, airports, truck routes, incinerators, and military bases. This is a phenomenon known as environmental racism and affects numerous Black and Hispanic people across the country. As a result of residing close to sources of toxic exposure, these vulnerable communities have a significantly greater burden of disease than the general population. For instance, Black individuals have the highest mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for all cancers, whereas cancer is the leading cause of death among Hispanic people, accounting for 20% of deaths. While there are other factors contributing to these unsettling statistics, environmental racism also plays a role.


The form of segregation that haunts communities to this day was known as redlining and it was historically used as a tool of discrimination and oppression which prevented communities from enjoying equitable access to housing, healthcare, educationaland employment opportunities. Redlining is so deeply entrenched; its effects of systematic discrimination continue after 94 years in the form of health disparities and wealth inequalities. The term originated from the practice of banks who used red lines to separate neighborhoods that were deemed ‘too risky’ for investment. Without access to mortgage financingBlack and Hispanic families were forced to live in areas with limited resources and poor infrastructureleading to a greater concentration of minorities in less desirable areas. The state-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation first organized and institutionalized this practice by using four color-codes who allegedly reflected the worthiness of locals, based on arbitrary and unjust factors. As part of this common pattern in the U.S., the communities of color in New Jersey were forced to live near sources of pollution such as industrial sitesmilitary facilities,and other unfavorable areas such as airports and highways. This practice has caused disproportionate exposure of Black and Hispanic communities to environmental hazards, with effects that persist to the present day.


Drinking Water Contaminated with "Forever Chemicals" Increases Cancer Risk in Communities of Color Residing Near Military Bases


Also known as PFAS or "forever chemicals" because of their ability to persist in the environment and the human body for a long time, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are now present in the bloodstream of up to 97% of Americans. They have become ubiquitous due to their many uses, and on military facilities, these harmful substances are released by firefighters using AFFF, a fire suppressant containing PFAS in a concentration between 50% and 98%. Since "forever chemicals" are possible human carcinogens, exposure can be responsible for potentially fatal illnesses, such as kidney, testicular, and prostate cancer


A recent study by Harvard University found that PFAS detection was positively associated with the number of these chemicals' sources and proportions of residents of color who are served by a water system. Each industrial facility, airport, and military fire training area in a community water system's watershed was linked to a 10% to 108% increase in PFOA and a 20% to 34% increase in PFOS in drinking water. As two of the most dangerous substances from the "forever chemicals" class, PFOA and PFOS are also some of the most studied agents. However, PFAS refer to nearly 15,000 different substances.


New Jersey is part of EPA’s Superfund mission to clean the nation’s most contaminated land. The state is home to a staggering 115 Superfund sites and a few examples can give you an idea about the scale of the contamination. With 264,000 parts per trillion, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst exceeds the ‘safe’ exposure limit of PFAS by a whopping 66,000 times. Located in Egg Harbor Township and serving central and southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, Atlantic City International Airport has recorded a level of 87,250 ppt, which is 21,800 times over the limit. Another PFAS hotspot is The Naval Warfare Center Trenton, located in Ewing Township. The site has recorded a level of 27,800, which is lower than the others but still holds significant health risks due to its proximity to the surrounding communities and high toxicity of PFAS even at low levels.

There is a historically strong demographic presence of Hispanics and people of color around the PFAS hotspots. In the communities surrounding Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Atlantic City International Airport, and The Naval Warfare Center Trenton, Hispanic and Black people make up 56.80%, 24.20%, and 37.80% of the total population. Located to the southeast of Atlantic City, Pleasantville represents an example of the demographic reality, with Black and Hispanics comprising 50% of its population. Due to historical and environmental factors, PFAS will only worsen the communities’ decades-long health challenges, considering their susceptibility to the highly toxic PFAS.


Achieving Environmental Justice – An Uphill Battle for Communities of Color


Undoubtedly, combating environmental injustice is going to be a very challenging endeavor for Black and Hispanic communities. The status quo is unnerving, as it is actually cheaper for a corporation to pollute communities of color than white communities. Although corporations will receive a fine if they violate environmental laws, the fines tend to be lower in communities of color, particularly Black and low-income communities. Nevertheless, using a combination of grassroots activism and collaboration with private law firms might turn out to be effective in deterring corporations and government entities from polluting communities of color.


About the Author


Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. Headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, the law firm assists individuals and communities affected by toxic exposure. Jonathan Sharp is responsible for the management of firm assets, case evaluation, and financial analysis.

No comments: