Rachel's Democracy & Health News #849  [Printer-friendly version]
April 6, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Massachusetts (probably the most liberal
state in the Union) dumps up to 10 times as much pollution into
communities of color and low income, compared to white middle-class
communities. Other states are no doubt worse but even in
Massachusetts the injustice is outrageous and blatant. The situation
cries out for real remedies: Anti-discrimination policies based on
fairness and a simple do-unto-others ethic -- but with teeth. Plus
environmental policies based on precaution.]

By Tim Montague

We know from the growing body of literature on the social
determinants of health that our health depends on many factors beyond
diet and exercise, including income and social status, social support
networks, education and literacy, employment/working conditions,
social environment, physical environment and others. The World Health
Organization gives this example, "If you catch the metro train in
downtown Washington, D.C., to suburbs in Maryland, life expectancy is
57 years at beginning of the journey. At the end of the journey, it is
77 years. This means that there is 20-year life expectancy [gap] in
the nation's capitol, between the poor and predominantly African
American people who live downtown, and the richer and predominantly
non-African American people who live in the suburbs.[2]

Last week in Rachel's News #848 I reviewed the brutal state of
affairs in Massachusetts where the poor and communities of color
(towns with more than 15% nonwhite residents) are exposed to much
higher levels of industrial pollution. In their detailed study of
how hazardous waste, landfills and industrial pollution are
disproportionately heaped on the working poor and communities of color
in Massachusetts, Daniel R. Faber and Eric J. Krieg concluded that
it's four times as dangerous to be poor and twenty times as dangerous
to live in a community of color. They said, "...if you live in a
community of color, you are thirty- nine times more likely to live in
one of the most environmentally hazardous communities in
Massachusetts."[1, pg. 10] Taken together with the other social
determinants of health that predispose these populations to illness we
can see that the cumulative impacts are profound.

Traditional NIMBY (not in my back yard) tactics will help individual
neighborhoods and towns for a period of time. But what really needs to
happen, say Faber and Krieg, is nothing short of "a more holistic
strategy for achieving social and environmental justice; one that
involves moving from locally reactive actions to more regionally
proactive approaches to community planning and economic development.
To do so requires crossing profound racial and ethnic boundaries, and
bridging the divide between the white middle-class of suburbia and
poorer people of color and working class whites in the inner
cities.[1, pg. 59]

Discrimination of all kinds -- but mostly racism and classism --
empowers corporations and the government regulatory agencies (the
dominant culture) to dump on the less powerful (working poor and
communities of color). But even if we correct this wrong, and
distribute our pollution equally across race and class, we still have
a huge problem. In Massachusetts, from 1990-2002, industry
"...released over 204.3 million pounds of chemical waste directly into
the environment... an amount equivalent to over 2,550 tractor-trailer
trucks each loaded with 80,000 pounds of toxic waste."[2, pg. 5] No
matter how equitably we distribute our pollution, vast numbers of
children are going to suffer from cancer, birth-defects, low birth-
weight, developmental disabilities, immune disorders and a variety of
other harms. [See Rachel's News #829 -- "Why We Can't Prevent

To tackle environmental discrimination, Faber and Krieg suggest policy
solutions such as, "An Act to Promote Environmental Justice in the
Commonwealth," a proposed law that is under review in Massachusetts.
It "...includes measures for enhancing the education, notification,
and participation of community residents in state-based environmental-
problem solving.[1, pg. 54] They outline some priorities of this
legislation, including:

(1) increasing public participation and outreach through EJ
(environmental justice) training programs (including greater language

(2) reducing risks by targeting compliance, enforcement and technical
assistance to EJ populations;

(3) streamline brownfield redevelopment projects with priority given
to EJ sensitive projects; and

(4) promote cleaner development by encouraging economic development
projects that incorporate state-of-the-art pollution control
technology, and alternatives to hazardous chemicals.[1, pg. 55]

Growing the state's sensitivity and priority for EJ communities is
good and necessary. But it's not going to solve the pollution problem
so Faber and Krieg go on to identify "...a more 'productive' EJ
politics with an orientation toward the prevention of environmental
risks from being produced in the first place. A movement for
environmental justice is of limited efficacy if the end result is to
have all residents poisoned to the same perilous degree, regardless of
race, color, or class.[1, pg. 55, emphasis added.]

And: "The transition to clean production and utilization of the
precautionary principle are key components of a more 'productive' EJ
politics. The precautionary principle posits that if there is a
strong possibility of harm (instead of scientifically proven certainty
of harm) to human health or the environment from a substance or
activity, precautionary measures should be taken. [1, pg. 56, emphasis


Faber and Krieg call on the Precautionary Principle to prevent these
gross environmental injustices in the first place. Where there is
reasonable suspicion of harm, and scientific uncertainty about cause
and effect, then we have a duty to act to prevent harm. The
Precautionary Principle suggests five actions:

1) Set goals;

2) Examine all reasonable ways of achieving the goal, intending to
choose the least-harmful way;

3) Heed early warnings and make mid-course corrections;

4) Shift the burden of proof; and

5) Throughout the decision-making process, honor the knowledge of
those who will be affected by the decisions, and give them a real
"say" in the outcome.

These goals are also compatible with our basic human rights as
outlined by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
of 1948 and codified in the Massachusetts Constitution: "...the public
has the right to clean air and water. When any citizen is unwillingly
harmed by exposure to industrial toxic pollutants found in the
environment, an injustice is being perpetrated."[1, pg. 58]

Faber and Krieg point out that: "Standard environmental policy
approaches in Massachusetts utilize risk assessments to determine
'acceptable' levels of public exposure to industrial pollutants, which
are then applied as a general standard on industry." This 'dilution is
the solution," assumes that dispersion of environmental pollution
leads to 'safe levels' of public exposure. But that's exactly how we
created a Massachusetts that is today heaping up to ten times the
amount of pollution on the poor and people of color. "Furthermore, the
scientific standards of proof for demonstrating the vast array of
potential health impacts of a chemical are very difficult to
demonstrate conclusively. Over 70 percent of the 3,000 high production
volume (HPV) chemicals produced by industry (HPV chemicals are
produced in quantities of one million pounds or more annually) have
not undergone even the simplest health and safety testing."[1, pg. 56;
and see "Getting Beyond Risk Assessment," in Rachel's News #846]

This is why the one chemical at a time approach just doesn't work. We
have to consider classes of chemicals like POPs (persistent organic
pollutants). And we have to put the burden of proof on industry -- so
that they have some incentive to find safe alternatives. Massachusetts
is taking some steps with a proposed law -- similar to the Louisville
Charter -- "Safer Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals". Faber and Krieg
explain, "This bill aims to create a model for the gradual replacement
of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives. It initially targets ten
substances that are currently replaceable with feasible safer
alternatives. It accomplishes this goal by laying out a careful
process to examine all available evidence to identify safer
alternatives and manufacturing processes that will benefit the health
of workers, customers, children, the environment, and the economy. The
proposed program would stimulate research and development on new
technologies and solutions when a safer alternative is not currently
feasible. It would also create programs to assist workers and
businesses in the transition to the safest available alternatives,
with funding provided through a fee on toxic chemicals."[1, pp. 56-57]

The questions then becomes, do we have the political will to take back
our democracy from those who would make it so small they can drown it
in a bathtub, as Grover Norquist would have it. In recent years in
Massachusetts, Faber and Krieg say, "...the Department of
Environmental Protection and Executive Office Environmental Affairs
has suffered devastating budget cuts and staff reductions. The
capacity of the DEP and EOEA to successfully address issues of
environmental injustice will require "...funding, staff, and other
resources to adequate levels."[1, pg. 59]

Precautionary principle policies are clearly the way forward. Europe
is doing it with REACH which could save billions by providing
environmental and health benefits. California has adopted integrated
pest management in schools in Los Angeles and Emeryville, zero
waste in Oakland and alternative purchasing agreements San
Francisco and Berkeley. The texts of many of these new laws are
available here and here. We can look forward to much lively
discussion and debate about current and future precautionary action at
the upcoming The First National Conference on Precaution June 9-11
2006 in Baltimore, Maryland -- and we hope to see you there.

[1] Daniel Faber and Eric Krieg, Unequal Exposure to Ecological
Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts. Northeastern University, October 2005. Available

[2] Michael Marmot, "What are the social determinants of health?,"
U.N. Commission on Social Determinants of Health. February 19, 2006.
Available here. See also "Health and Environmental Health:
Expanding the Movement" in Rachel's News #843 for a discussion of the
social determinants of health.