US minorities disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals

African Americans and other minorities are 50% more likely than white Americans to live in communities with hazardous waste facilities, environmental justice experts have claimed.

Black minorities face a greater risk of exposure to lead, pesticides, air pollution, toxic releases, water pollution, solid and hazardous waste, and raw sewage, academics at Clark Atlanta University’s Environmental Justice Resource Center (EJRC) claim. The result, they say, is that black communities experience higher than average cancer rates, respiratory illness and birth defects.

The director of the centre, Dr Robert Bullard, has called for “immediate action and enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other equal protection laws.”

A 1992 study reported in the National Law Journal uncovered inequities in the way the EPA enforces its laws. Bullard says the EPA and other agencies focus on remediation instead of enforcing existing laws designed to ensure equal protection for all ethnic groups – such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Examples cited by Bullard include that of Sandra Denise Lewis, who died of cancer at 17 years of age. The Agriculture Street community in Louisiana where Sandra lived was built in the early 1980s on top of a former municipal dump. Many residents believe that her death was caused by high levels of lead and arsenic, dioxin, chlordane and over 100 other toxins found in the soil and ground water during an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study.

In 1992, nearly a decade later, the agency declared the community a Superfund site in 1992. Community members suffer from the highest breast cancer rate in the state of Louisiana. They also have residents who suffer from other forms of cancer, various forms of brain and body tumours and respiratory illness.

Despite residents’ demands for relocation, EPA implemented a voluntary clean up plan that included digging up two feet of toxic soil (although toxins were found 17″ deep), laying a mesh cover and replacing the soil with clean fill. Most residents refused to participate in the plan, saying they believed it put them at risk of further toxic exposure.

  • The Interim National Black Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinating Committee (INBEEJCC), a network of environmental justice advocates representing over 100 communities in 30 states across the country, has launched an action plan to deal with the problems outlined by the EJRC. The INBEEJCC Action Plan 2000 calls for a meeting with Anne Goode, the director of Office of Civil Rights at EPA, to demand the enforcement of Title VI; a status report on the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice; and the mobilisation of the black community to respond to the Superfund Relocation Policy.

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