By: Benjamin Silver, Science and Technology Intern

The government’s inefficient response to toxic chemical exposure in American communities can be the difference between life and death.

Once a dump for mill waste, the San Jacinto Waste Pits release toxic quantities of dioxin into the San Jacinto River. When these chemical carcinogens interact with the water, they are released into the air, endangering the local residents in Harris County, Texas. In 2017, the EPA approved a 2 year, $115 million cleanup plan. However, the project is still in the design phase, and the EPA has extended its timeline by five years. While the cleanup remains mired by bureaucracy, the San Jacinto waste pits continue to endanger local residents every day. In 2015, the Texas Department of Health found that 17 of 38 census tracts in Harris County have suffered statistically significant increases across multiple cancers. 

The development of these cancer clusters has left many residents wondering if they’ll ever get justice for their hardship. While the polluters, the International Paper Company and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation, have agreed to finance the cleanup, residents have been forced to cover their own cancer treatment.

Obtaining medical compensation for health impacts caused by chemical contamination inflicts a significant burden on communities across the United States. They must undergo years of suffering attempting to prove that chemical contamination is responsible for their adverse health effects. Communities then spend more years in court battling to secure health care from the responsible parties, often having little or no success.

Such a burden is amplified in communities that don’t have the resources to hire doctors and lawyers. Low income, minority communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution and are inadequately equipped to seek health care. Since impacted residents in these communities often do not have health insurance, many die or suffer permanent damage while seeking medical and other compensation.

The government must simplify the process of seeking health care and enable local residents to attain  justice more quickly. Proponents of the current extensive testing process argue that its complexity ensures that alleged corporate polluters are not mistakenly held accountable. But what if we could simplify testing while also ensuring medical compensation is provided?

If receiving health care only required proof of an association between chemicals and adverse health impacts, communities would not need to directly link contamination with specific health conditions in residents. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs already outlines a list of cancers, neurological disorders, and developmental problems associated with exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange. Exposed soldiers must only prove that they were stationed in places where Agent Orange was used, stored, or handled. They do not need to prove that their health problem was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Similarly, communities exposed to toxic chemicals should not have to prove that their health problems were caused by these chemicals to receive medical care. They would merely need to prove that toxic chemicals are present. If an individual with an associated health condition interacted in an exposed region, as shown by testing, they could automatically qualify for health care coverage. 

But the significance of a reformed response to chemical contamination extends beyond any single community. For decades, corporate polluters have weaponized a broken system for responding to chemical contamination. They have fiscally and emotionally drained communities by denying responsibility for contamination, lobbying, and dragging out legal fights. Thus, polluters can often completely avoid being held accountable for their lethal actions.

Developing a new mode of responding to chemical contamination is about saying “enough is enough” to perpetrators of pollution. We cannot allow corporations to victimize innocent communities and compromise their health. While the government can medically compensate for chemical contamination, we must proactively dissuade corporations from endangering Americans. Responding effectively to chemical contamination is as much about standing up to polluters as it is standing up for human rights.

Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle