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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/19/13

Living with More Pollution: Why Race and Place Still Matter

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Healthy people and healthy places are highly correlated. The poorest of the poor within the U.S. have the worst health and live in the most degraded environments. Race also maps closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.  Racialized place provides advantage, privilege, and an "edge" for whites, while placing a pollution "tax" on people of color. Where you live impacts your health and well-being. Zip code is a potent predictor of health.  

Race and place matter. The race, place and proximity to polluting facilities pattern was documented as early as 1979 in the Houston solid waste study that supported Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp, the nation's first lawsuit challenging environmental discrimination using civil rights law. From the 1930s up until 1978, all five of Houston's city-owned landfills, six of the city's eight incinerators, and three of four privately-owned sanitary landfills were located in mostly black neighborhoods. Blacks made up only 25 percent of the city's population during the nearly five decades studied.   

In 1987, the United of Christ Commission for Racial Justice Toxic Wastes and Race in the United Statesreport found race was the most potent factor in predicting the location of  commercial hazardous waste facilities--more powerful than poverty, land and property values, and home ownership. People of color were overrepresented in communities near hazardous waste sites. Two decades later, the 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report found people of color made up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%); they also made up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with two or more clustered facilities.

In 2002, the Air of Injustice report found more than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant--the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur. In comparison, 56 percent of whites and 39 percent of Latinos live in such proximity to a coal-fired power plant. A 2005 Associated Press studyconcluded that people of color and poor people live with more pollution than the rest of the nation. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution posed the greatest health threat. African Americans in 19 states, Latinos in 12 states, and Asians in seven states were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where pollution posed the greatest health danger. A 2007 study, Still Toxic After All These Years , using data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency on toxic-air releases from large industrial facilities and estimated health risks from air toxics emitted from both mobile and stationary sources, found two-thirds of those living within a mile of such facilities were people of color, while two-thirds of those living more than two and a half miles away were white.

Environmental vulnerability cannot be reduced solely to poverty. A 2008 national study found middle-income African Americans (households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000) live in neighborhoods on average that are more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $10,000 live. A 2009 study tracked pollution from individual companies to specific communities and found the most polluted places tend to have significantly higher-than-average percentages of people of color.  Of the top 10 companies on the "Toxic 100" list, people of color are hit especially hard, bearing more than half of the human health impacts from the companies' toxic air releases.  


In 2010, much attention was on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and cleanup efforts.  However, little attention was given to where the waste was disposed. Although people of color make up about 26 percent of the coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, government officials approved a plan that would allow most of the BP oil waste to be trucked to environmental justice communities.  A 2010 study revealed that on July 15, 2010--the earliest reporting period--39,399 tons of BP waste went to nine landfills of which 21,867 tons (55.4 percent) were disposed at landfills in communities of color and 30,338 tons (77.0 percent) of oil waste went to communities where the percent people of color was greater than the percent people of color in the host county.


Place-based pollution disproportionately affects children.  In a 2011 study, University of Michigan researchers found a link between air pollution around schools and poorer student health and academic performance. Schools located in areas with the highest air pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates--a potential indicator of poor health--and the highest proportions of students who failed to meet state educational testing standards. While 44.4 percent of all white students in Michigan attend schools located in the top 10 percent of the most polluted locations in the state, 81.5 percent of all African American schoolchildren and 62.1 percent of all Hispanic students attend schools in the most polluted zones. In a 2011 studyof residential segregation and cancer risk, University of California researchers found disparities associated with ambient air toxics are affected by segregation and that these exposures may have health significance for populations across racial lines. The 2012 Patterns of Pollution: A Report on Demographics and Pollution in Atlantastudy f ound people of color, low-income, and language-isolated communities in metro Atlanta are more likely to be living in close proximity to pollution than others in region.

Clearly, low-income and people of color in the U.S. have long borne an unequal burden of environmental health threats in their neighborhoods compared to the general population. Living in the shadows cast by incinerators, smelters, garbage dumps, sewage treatment plants, landfills and chemical plants, residents in low-income and people of color communities are disproportionately affected by industrial pollution and unequal enforcement of environmental regulations. They have a right to health, a clean environment, and equal protection as other Americans. It is time to end this "dumping" madness. Environmental justice for all is the solution.  

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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