Poisoned air spews out from nearby factories, threatening to choke you. Trash fills the streets and the same water that runs through your pipes is a putrid, murky brown. The sun is out, but the thick smog prevents its rays from penetrating the Earth. The current discomforts are astronomical, but they are nothing compared to the chronic damage lurking in the future. While essentially the setting of a dystopian novel, this is a reality that hundreds of thousands of Americans face. Environmental racism is the prevalence of environmental hazards in and the pollution of low-income, minority communities as well as the criminal neglect and inequality shown in legislative policies towards them. Cleanliness and access to pure air and water are basic human rights, yet in the interests of profit margins, we subjugate the communities who do not have the voice to fight back because no one cares about them.
Industrial factories (aka major sources of pollutants), chemical manufacturers, and power plants are disproportionately located in communities of color. They are cited as a necessary service for urban areas, but it’s only the groups of people that lack the political clout to fight their communities from becoming trash heaps and waste depositories that suffer from these issues. The pollution produced by the factories, through production measures and dumping practices, can cause major health issues for the residents, both in the short-term and the long-term. Even though their lives are being threatened, residents cannot leave because they do not have the resources to do so. Pollution of air and water sources can cause short-term issues such as respiratory and digestive issues, but it also runs the risk of lung disease, cancer, and birth defects in the long-run. These issues primarily affect low-income neighborhoods because they are considered invisible by society. Companies can afford to dump their waste in neighborhoods of color because they have enough money to silence their critics and rewrite the regulations to serve themselves.
Flint, Michigan: a town that is 84 percent black in a state that is 80 percent white and run by Republicans catering to big businesses. The citizens of Flint are in one of the largest and most publicized public health crises in our country as thousands of residents have lacked access to clean water for the past four years. In 2014, it was decided that Flint was to change its water source to the Flint River, a previous repository for industrial waste, in order to cut costs. Preliminary tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria as well as various other chemicals, yet the witch was still made despite public concern. After the switch, people began developing skin rashes, losing their hair, and getting sick; the public sent hundreds of emails to their state representatives, but their voices were silenced as the water quality was not a “high safety priority,” despite is testing well above the EPA’s recommended levels in several areas. Children began to test for elevated levels of lead, an indicator which was sent to the State Health Department, but the report was ignored. Hundred of children checked into the hospital due to lead poisoning, yet the government did nothing. Exposure to lead, especially in childhood, can be extremely detrimental; it can lower the IQ in children permanently and irreversibly, cause severe birth defects, and have serious long term consequences. There is no safe amount of lead to consume, only “acceptable” levels, but even when the drinking water in Flint was shown to have 30 times the acceptable limit of lead, the government still did nothing. However, when General Motors complained of the water from the Flint River eroding their materials, the government switched their water source back to Lake Huron within weeks; even as the people of Flint were dying, they still had to drink the water from the Flint River. The water crisis in Flint continues to this day, leaving the people to suffer the contaminated water for years to come.
LaPlace, Louisiana, more colloquially known as “Cancer Alley.” Yet another majority black town in a majority white state left to suffer the consequences of other people’s actions. LaPlace is home to the Denka Performance Elastomer Plant, the source of 99% of our nation’s chloroprene solution which also happens to be directly adjacent to an elementary school. Chloroprene, as decided by the EPA, is “likely carcinogenic,” yet local readings of air quality taken at the hospital, the levee, and the schools are 50 to 100 times above the EPA’s recommended upper limit. The company owning the factory did agree to lower chloroprene emissions by 85%, but they refuse to acknowledge the link between chloroprene and cancer, and they will not acknowledge the EPA’s recommended level, instead sticking to a limit 150 times what is deemed safe. Meanwhile, the people of LaPlace are dying. Thousands of residents are developing cancer, kidney failure, and respiratory failure. Children are becoming incapable of breathing on their own, regularly needing oxygen machines just to stay alive. Despite citizens complaints and activism, both the local government and the plant owners refuse to acknowledge the health risk. They say that reports are overblown and that everything is inconclusive. The hundred of deaths due to cancer and related issues apparently don’t seem like a good enough reason to act.
Unlike Flint, most people have never heard of LaPlace, yet their residents are suffering in almost the same way. Because these communities are poor and black, lawmakers and companies believe they can actively poison them, and no one will care. And they’re right. Flint and LaPlace are not unique situations; hundred of cities across the United States are in the exact same situation, yet no one talks about it. The people of these cities suffer in silence as their voices are drowned out by the sound of gold coins clinking together. Access to clean water and air, as well as safety from an abundance of carcinogens, should be considered a basic human right. Environmental safety and cleanliness is not an issue that affects a few people, it affects all of us. However, it often disproportionately affects those already discriminated against by society. Thousands die, yet our government lies still; to them, it doesn’t matter because its only thousands, not millions, and they are the people that lack enough recognition and power to effectively fight back. These are people that are suffering, not expendable pawns, but yet nothing changes. Be that change.