During Historic Week for Environmentalism, We Can't Forget About Toxic-Chemical Exposure

Both the House and Senate are considering bills that will weaken existing protections and disproportionately imperil communities of color.

This week, the Obama administration announced a sweeping set of environmental regulations aimed at reducing carbon pollution. If they survive the inevitable industry pushback, the changes are expected to significantly reduce carbon pollution.

But as the nation's attention turns to the pollution created by coal-fired plants, there are whole host of environmental issues — issues that deeply affect the country's fast-growing minority and low-income populations — that should not be ignored. Right now, elected members in both the House and the Senate are working to keep already limited regulations on toxic chemicals weak. If successful, the measures will simply perpetuate and deepen existing levels of environmental racism.

In particular, there are two pieces of legislation that would guarantee continued disproportionate harm to people of color from toxic chemicals. The Senate's Chemical Safety Improvement Act  and the House's draft Chemicals in Commerce Act both aim to change the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976.

TSCA governs toxic chemicals, regulating the introduction of new or already existing substances. TSCA "granted EPA authority to create a regulatory framework to collect data on chemicals in order to evaluate, assess, mitigate, and control risks that may be posed by their manufacture, processing, and use. TSCA provides a variety of control methods to prevent chemicals from posing unreasonable risk."

The first bill to attempt to equip the TSCA with specific environmental health protections was the Safe Chemicals Act. First introduced by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in 2010, then again in 2013, the Safe Chemicals Act sought to address environmental "hot spots," or as we health advocates often describe them, "sacrifice zones." These areas — overwhelmingly populated by people of color — are communities where people are the most harmed by toxic chemicals. Lautenberg's bill would have given the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to prioritize action to provide protections for 'hot spot' communities.

The Senate's CSIA and the House's CICA conspicuously make no mention of "hot spots."

Both CSIA and CICA do contain "gag rules," provisions for prison terms and financial penalties as high as $250,000 for doctors and nurses if they reveal information they receive from EPA about chemicals and their risks to "unauthorized people," such as the larger community. In hot-spot areas, health care providers are already discouraged from publicly linking the health effects they are seeing to the chemical exposures in the communities. Many of the companies running these facilities often insist that employees never go to outside health providers. Workers frequently feel they risk losing their jobs if they go to another medical provider — even on a weekend or evening — other than the "plant doctor." Some hot-spot communities even have clinics funded by the petrochemical corporations, and health care providers are reticent to openly tie the chemical pollution to the health impacts they are seeing for fear of losing funding.

While the legislators on both sides of the aisle take money from the chemical industry and their representatives, the overwhelming share of chemical-industry donations go to those in the Republican Party. The Center for Responsive Politics analyzed Federal Election Commission campaign contribution data, and found that more than $177 million was spent by the petrochemical industry for the 2012 election and for the 2014 election cycle so far. More than 75 percent of this money went to the very Republican members of Congress who are opposing environmental health protections in chemical reform.

With lucrative and elaborate schemes, chemical corporations have managed to keep regulations on their products weak and ineffective since the creation of TSCA. In the time since, more than 86,000 unregulated chemicals have invaded our products, our communities, our homes, our marketplace, and our bodies.

Peer-reviewed studies and emerging science on illness linked to these chemicals have been growing. Thyroid disease, diabetes, heart disease, infertility, neurodevelopmental issues (such as ADD and autism), and cancer are on the rise, particularly in communities of color. We now know that the average American baby is born with over 200 synthetic chemicals in his or her body, according to a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group. Toddlers and children of color often test positive for a higher "burden" of some flame-retardant chemicals on their hands than white children. Other studies such as one released by the Chamacos Project at the University of California (Berkeley) and another study out of New York University found chemicals in the bodies of African-American children linked to obesity. The African-American children tested also demonstrated higher levels of other chemicals in their bodies than their white peers.

Nowhere will you find more suffering from chemicals and their emissions than in communities living at and near the sources of these chemicals. Chemical plants, water-treatment plants, landfills, recycling centers, railroad tracks, roads for transporting chemicals, storage tanks for chemicals — all frequently built in historic communities of color where people have low incomes and even less political clout.

Mossville, La., the Houston Ship Channel, Wilmington, Del., Louisville, Ky., and Richmond, Calif., are just a few communities that are home to people of color. They are also communities where residents live with with on-going chemical exposure, high rates of respiratory illness, neurological and reproductive health problems, and even cancer. Watching children in these communities wearing respirators, waiting in emergency rooms, and struggling for their very breaths is heartbreaking to us.

To the chemical corporations, this is "the price of doing business."

Then there are the communities like West, Texas, and Elk River, W.Va., where preventable chemical catastrophes happen far more often than publicly reported. Even the far north can't escape chemical trespass. The indigenous people of the Arctic have tested positive for high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies and struggle with high birth-defect and cancer rates. Researchers believe this is happening because persistent chemicals drift north on wind and in water streams, and these chemicals can accumulate, including in fish and animals that residents rely on for survival.

Who really pays the price for weak and nonexistent chemical regulations? Not the congressional representatives who protect the chemical corporations from regulations. Not the chemical corporations themselves. People in the North are paying a high price for our failed chemical regulations. So are the residents of some of the nation's poorest and most populous neighborhoods.

The House draft CICA adds a cost-benefit analysis to be considered by regulators and chemical makers when evaluating the health and safety risks created by chemicals. To us, "cost benefit" means that the people who are suffering pay the costs while the chemical corporations reap the benefits.

The Environmental Justice and Health Alliance and other groups are calling upon members of Congress to do the right thing by their constituents.

Support the environmental health rights of all people — no matter their race or ethnicity. We all have the right to breathe clean air, to drink clean water, to live a healthy life free from harmful toxic chemicals. Environmental groups will continue seeking justice. In this case, we seek to make Congress aware that we are voters who demand justice for communities disproportionately hurt by toxic chemicals.

Michele Roberts is co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance. For more information about environmental justice and TSCA reform, see www.louisvillecharter.org. In April, the alliance joined with other organizations and released "Who's In Danger," a report on the disproportionate risk of chemical injury that Americans of color face due to the location of industrial facilities. 

HAVE AN OPINION ON POLICY AND CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS? The Next America welcomes op-ed pieces that explore the political, economic, and social effects of the profound racial and cultural changes facing our nation, particularly relevant to education, economy, the workforce, and health. Email Janell Ross at jross@nationaljournal.com. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.