Environmental Racism

The risks of contracting environmentally influenced diseases and deaths are not distributed evenly across the population in the United States. Geographically, the people at greatest risk are those who live near sources of industrial pollution such as factories and certain types of mines and those who live near deposits of toxic waste. For example, it seems that a geometrically increasing cancer rate for people in some communities in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is due to toxic deposits from the nearby Otis Air Force Base (Hallowell). By 1989, 14,401 sites of toxic contamination had been noted in 1,579 military installations around the United States (Renner). When cancer rates are plotted on a map of the nation, the places that show the highest rates are areas of industrial production such as Chicago, Detroit, northern New Jersey, and the lower Mississippi valley.

There is also a disparate impact on minority communities that is referred to as environmental racism. "Three out of every five African Americans and Hispanics live in a neighborhood with a hazardous waste site, and ... race is the most significant variable in differentiating communities with such sites from the communities without them" (Steinhart, p. 18). "Probably the greatest concentration of hazardous-waste sites in the United States is on the predominantly black and Hispanic South Side of Chicago" (Russell, p. 25). With 28 million pounds of toxics poured into that area annually, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the risk of cancer is 100 to 1,000 times the normal risk (Lavelle). According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, "lead poisoning endangers the health of nearly 8 million inner-city, largely black and Hispanic children" all over the United States (Russell, p. 24). Rural minority groups suffer disproportionately as well: "2 million tons of radioactive uranium tailings have been dumped on Native American lands; reproductive organ cancer among Navajo teenagers is seventeen times the national average" (Russell, p. 24).

Environmental racism is international as well as domestic. Toxic waste from industrial countries has been deposited in Africa (Jacobson). Some corporations in industrial countries continue to manufacture pesticides that are considered too dangerous for use in their own countries. Those pesticides are sold to farmers in the Third World, resulting in 10,000 to 40,000 poisonings per year (Postel, 1988). The Bhopal accident, in which 2,000 people were poisoned by a chemical leak from a factory in India, highlights the fact that environmental safeguards in the Third World are sometimes inadequate. The company that owns the factory is based in the United States, where it maintains higher standards of safety in its factories.

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