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Air Quality

Published on February 26th, 2018 | by Steve Hanley


Poverty, Racism Result In Higher Pollution, Shorter Life Spans, & More Illness

February 26th, 2018 by  

The “not in my backyard” syndrome known as NIMBY is all about political power. Those that have it are able to keep things like generating stations, chemical factories, and oil refineries out of their neighborhoods. Those who don’t have it can’t keep those hazardous operations out of theirs. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency published in the American Journal of Public Health on February 22 shines a light on the health hazards that low income neighborhoods and communities of color must cope with.

pollution study

The study looked at communities located with 2.5 miles of a refinery or factory and focused on fine particulates, the tiny bits of pollution that measure 2.5 microns or less in diameter — roughly 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. According to Think Progress, those particles are especially dangerous because they can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cross directly into the bloodstream. They have been shown to contribute to asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. Fine particulates are found in the exhaust of all internal combustion engines, especially diesels.

The study found that African American communities suffer the worst from pollution. People who live in those communities are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particulate pollution than the general population. Low income communities are exposed to 1.35 times more. “Disparities for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status,” the EPA study says.

A study by the NAACP in 2012 found that coal-fired generating stations are disproportionately located close to communities of color. Another report released in January, 2016 found the same is true with respect to toxic landfills. More often than not, low income communities have them for neighbors as well.

California is the first state in the nation to appoint legal advocates to take affirmative steps to address the problem of pollution. Attorney general Xavier Becerra last week announced the formation of a Bureau of Environmental Justice whose lawyers will work full time “to protect people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards.”

People who live in low income neighborhoods or communities of color usually do not have the economic resources to hire attorneys to go after polluters. That lack of economic power leads to a paucity of political power. The new bureau will attempt to address that inequality. Becerra made particular reference to the latest EPA study. “Justice should not be reserved for communities who can afford to investigate and litigate parties that break the law,” said Eduardo Garcia, a member of the California Assembly. Such progressive sentiments are, of course, anathema to the alleged president and his coterie of sycophants in the Republican Party.

“It is unacceptable that communities of color and low income communities must disproportionately face the sickening and life-threatening consequences of fossil fuel pollution,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “The status quo is clearly bad enough, yet the Trump administration is working hand-in-hand with corporate polluters to roll back many of the safeguards that could protect families, making a dangerous situation much, much worse.”

Pollution and powerlessness are themes that are playing out in a lawsuit brought by more than a thousand residents of Africatown, a community near Mobile, Alabama founded by former slaves near the site where the last ship carrying captives from West Africa to America landed in 1860. The plaintiffs allege that pollution from a nearby International Paper factory has caused an epidemic of cancer and other health issues that have caused many of their residents to die early deaths. The paper mill closed 20 years ago, but the parties to the lawsuit say the company failed to properly clean up its mess after the closure.

There could not be a better example of a community that has been adversely affected by industrial pollution and a lack of political power than Africatown. Its stands as a monument to the damage to human life that flows from being poor, black, and unable to defend against the onslaught of capitalism. Defenders of the business as usual paradigm will argue that International Paper was the sole source of employment for many of the people who live there or the ancestors. Nobody forced them to work in the mill or cash the paychecks they were issued, they will say. Such arguments only serve to highlight the extent to which sociopaths have risen to prominence in America.

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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may take him. His muse is Charles Kuralt -- "I see the road ahead is turning. I wonder what's around the bend?" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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