Rachel's Democracy & Health News #849, 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 Cancer"]

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 accessibility);

(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 added.]


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 here.

[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.