Prenatal Exposure to Common Chemicals Linked to Lower IQ in Kids


By Agata Blaszczak-Boxe  Live-Science

The children of women who are exposed to higher levels of chemicals called phthalates during pregnancy may have lower IQ scores than those whose mothers are exposed to lower levels of those chemicals, according to a new study. Phthalates are common in products such as plastics and the fragrances used in shampoos, air fresheners and dryer sheets.

In the study, researchers followed 328 women in New York City who were either African-American or Dominican-American, as well as their children, who were born between 1998 and 2006. The researchers measured the levels of four types of phthalates in the women’s urine, and looked at the children’s IQ scores at age 7.

They found that the children of mothers with the highest urine levels of two chemicals — called di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP) — had IQ scores that were about 6 to 8 points lower than those of the children whose mothers had the lowest levels of those chemicals in their urine.

The findings are important because “shifts in IQ during these school-age years might have influences later on educational attainment and occupational choice for the children,” said study author Pam Factor-Litvak, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. [12 Worst Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals]

The researchers also found a link between the levels of those chemicals and specific aspects of IQ, such as the speed at which kids processed information, their ability to understand nonverbal information and their short-term memory.

One strength of the study was that it followed the participants over time, said Dr. Susan Klugman, director of reproductive genetics at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, who was not involved in the research.

“But I do feel that environmental toxin studies are tough, only because there are so many factors involved,” and child development studies depend on the population being studied and are not always applicable to other groups, Klugman told Live Science.

The researchers noted that their findings show an association, but not a cause-and-effect link between prenatal exposure to the chemicals and lower IQ scores. However, the researchers did find consistent associations between the two.

“Before we can make any absolute conclusions about causality, a study of wider population would be helpful, for sure,” said Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, director of occupational and environmental medicine at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York, who was not involved in the study. “I think a study like this certainly raises concerns and puts the level of concern about this much higher for everyone, not just for this population that was studied.”

There may be several mechanisms behind the link between prenatal exposure to certain phthalates and children’s IQ, Factor-Litvak said. First, phthalates disrupt the body’s hormones, so they may affect brain development, she said.

“They may also modulate the activity of an enzyme called aromatase,” which converts testosterone into estrogen, a hormone that is veryimportant in brain development, Factor-Litvak told Live Science. Phthalates may also interfere with the production of thyroid hormone, which is a major player in the timing of brain development, she said.

Moreover, the chemicals may also disrupt the brain’s activity related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, “which is linked to inattention and hyperactivity,” Factor-Litvak said.

“They [the mechanisms] are not exclusionary,” she said. “More than one could be going on at the same time.” All of these mechanisms have been hinted at in animal studies of phthalates, she added.

To reduce the potential harmful effects from exposure to phthalates, the researchers recommended that people avoid microwaving food in plastic, and they discouraged consumers from using scented personal products. They also advised against using recyclable plastics labeled as 3, 6 or 7, which contain the chemicals, and encouraged people to start using glass containers instead of plastic ones.

When it comes to products labeled as “phthalate-free,” it is not clear whether the chemicals that are used instead of phthalates are safer for health, because they have not been studied yet, Factor-Litvak said.

The use of certain phthalates in toys for young children has been banned, but there is no legislation that might affect exposure to the chemicals during pregnancy, “which is likely the most sensitive period for brain development,” Factor-Litvak said. Moreover, product labels are not required to specify whether a product contains phthalates, she added.

“There is almost nothing in the world that is entirely risk-free or even toxin-free,” Spaeth told Live Science. “I have never heard any public health advocates calling for the elimination of plastics. But I think most would agree that we could do a much better job in changing the ingredients used in products to an extent that would certainly put us at lower risk for exposure to phthalates and BPA [bisphenol-A], and other kinds of chemicals as well.” [5 Ways to Limit BPA in Your Life]

Absent regulations, expecting mothers should pay attention to their exposure to these chemicals, Klugman said.

“There are so many environmental toxins, and I do think that pregnant women and parents have to limit prenatal and postnatal exposure, or attempt to limit it,” Klugman said. “People can’t live their life totally in fear, but I think we have to take a step back and think about what we do, think about what we do when we are pregnant, think about what we expose our children to,” Klugman said.

The study was published today (Dec. 10) in the journal PLOS ONE.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science@livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.


Methane still belches from USA’s old oil and gas wells


Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

Two studies out this week focus on unintentional emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the air.

One study found that millions of abandoned oil and gas wells across the USA could release a significant quantity of methane into the atmosphere but are not included in total emission counts.

A second study found that only a few active natural gas wells produce the majority of known methane emissions.

Methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat and thus is a prime contributor to global warming. Methane accounts for nearly 9% of all greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activity in the USA.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the oil and gas industry is the largest source of methane in the atmosphere in the USA, followed by livestock emissions and landfills.

The first study, published Monday, appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The second study, published Tuesday in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, was supported by several natural gas companies and the Environmental Defense Fund.

In the first study, Mary Kang and colleagues from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Princeton University measured methane from and near 19 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.

The authors found that all of the wells emitted some level of methane. Three wells were “high emitters,” releasing the gas at a rate much higher than the others.

“These measurements show that methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells can be significant,” Kang and her co-authors wrote in the first study ever to measure methane from old wells.

Kang said wells are pathways for gases and other fluids that would otherwise remain trapped deep underground to migrate upward.

The authors estimate that abandoned wells in Pennsylvania could account for 4%-7% of all human-sourced methane emissions in the state. The researchers say the wells in Pennsylvania could be representative of all the wells across the country.

“There is no regulatory requirement to monitor or account for methane emissions from abandoned wells in the United States,” Kang wrote.

In the second study, researchers from the University of Texas found that leaks at a small group of wells — about 20% — cause most of the known methane emissions. The wells extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.

“To put this in perspective, over the past several decades, 10% of the cars on the road have been responsible for the majority of automotive exhaust pollution,” said David Allen, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas and the study’s lead author.

The release of methane from the wells was highest along the Gulf Coast, the study found, but lowest in the Rockies.

Overall, methane pollution in the USA has declined 11% since 1990, even as the federal government has pushed for a greater reliance on natural gas.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which accumulates and lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane tends to degrade in a decade or so, according to David Archer, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago.

A well pipe emerges from the ground in the Allegheny

A well pipe emerges from the ground in the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. Researchers covered pipes from 19 wells with instruments to measure gases emitted by the well.(Photo: Mary Kang, Princeton University)


Stop Poisoning The Children


When will we stop poisoning our children?  What is a child’s life worth? I can’t help but ask those questions today as I click through my e-mail box and see the story on fracking related health effects, around birth defects and infertility and another on cancer, respiratory disease and more. As I scroll down there’s a new story by the Center for Public Integrity focused on a study finding childhood leukemia related to the petrochemical industry.

“Children, developing fetuses, they’re especially vulnerable to environmental factors,” says Ellen Webb, the study’s lead author and an energy program associate at the Center for Environmental Health. “We really need to be concerned about the impacts for these future generations.”

The Center for Public Integrity story is almost a mirror image of the story about Woburn,  Massachusetts. Parents in that community in the late 1970’s discovered a cluster of childhood leukemia while taking their children into the hospital for treatment. For those who are familiar with the Woburn story just read the paragraphs below for the article and see the similarities.

“It was December 29, 1998, six years after Jill McElheney and her family had moved next to a cluster of 12 petroleum storage tanks. Jill was escorting her son Jarrett, then 4, to the doctor again. He had spent the day slumped in a stroller, looking so pale and fatigued that a stranger stopped her to ask if he was all right.

It was an encounter Jill couldn’t shake. For the previous three months, she had noticed her once-energetic preschooler deteriorating. He complained of pain in his knee, which grew excruciating. It migrated to his shoulder and then his leg. His shins swelled, as did his temples. At night, Jarrett awoke drenched in sweat, screaming from spasms. Jill took him to a pediatrician and an infectious-disease specialist. A rheumatologist diagnosed him with anemia.

Doctors identified a common form of childhood leukemia. “I heard the words,” Jill recalled, “and I only knew the bald heads and the sadness.”

In the waiting room, family members heard more unsettling news: A neighbor’s child also had developed leukemia.

Days later, Jarrett’s doctor penned a letter to federal environmental regulators about the two cancer patients, highlighting their “close proximity” to Southeast Terminals, a group of 10,000-gallon tanks containing gasoline, diesel and fuel oil.

“Could you please investigate,” the doctor wrote, “whether high levels of chemicals could have contaminated the water, possibly contributing … to the development of leukemia?”

I can remember like it was yesterday, talking with mothers from Woburn literally telling the same story. Why are corporations allowed, now over thirty five years later, to continue to poison our children? These children have parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, names and personalities. They are not just numbers in a report or statistics in someone’s research they are little people and are helpless. It is well past time to stop this madness and protect the most vulnerable among us. Enough is enough our children matter.


Study Links Fracking to Infertility, Miscarriages, Birth Defects


A new study links shale oil and gas development to a host of developmental and reproductive health risks, and says the processes involved – including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – pose a particularly potent threat to what researchers called “our most vulnerable population.”

“Children, developing fetuses, they’re especially vulnerable to environmental factors,” says Ellen Webb, the study’s lead author and an energy program associate at the Center for Environmental Health. “We really need to be concerned about the impacts for these future generations.”

Read more from Alan Neuhauser at US News & World Report.

A car drives by a home with a nearby derrick drilling for natural gas near Calvert, Pennsylvania. The local area sits above the Marcellus Shale where debate occurs about drilling for natural gas and hydrofracking. Hydrofracking is a controversial drilling method which pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into horizontally drilled wells to stimulate the release of the gas. | Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images

Big-Picture Study Of Fracking Operations Suggests Even Small Chemical Exposures Pose Risks


“April Lane’s work often brings her to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she monitors pollution from natural gas production sites around the area’s rich shale reserves. Exposure to toxins, she says, have left her with chronic headaches, nausea and a hesitancy to have more children.

A car drives by a home with a nearby derrick drilling for natural gas near Calvert, Pennsylvania. The local area sits above the Marcellus Shale where debate occurs about drilling for natural gas and hydrofracking. Hydrofracking is a controversial drilling method which pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into horizontally drilled wells to stimulate the release of the gas. | Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images

“I’ve decided having another baby is probably not going to happen for me. I’m too scared of what the health effects might be,” said Lane, 28, of Little Rock, a mother of one and an environmental health advocate who has led citizen groups in tracking threats from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations.

A paper published Friday in Reviews on Environmental Health may give credence to her personal suspicions. The paper suggests that even tiny doses of benzene, toluene and other chemicals released during the various phases of oil and natural gas production, including fracking, could pose serious health risks — especially to developing fetuses, babies and young children.”

Read more from Lynne Peeples at The Huffington Post.


Massachusetts Governor Signs Executive Order on Environmental Justice


Citing the Massachusetts State Constitution, which declares  that “people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment,” Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick signed an executive order on environmental justice this week. The order established a Director of Environmental Justice within the office of the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who will work to ensure that all populations regardless of race or income level have access to a clean environment. The order also established an Environmental Justice Advisory Council, guaranteed updates to its Environmental Justice Policy, and promised to develop a strategy for environmental justice.

Read the order here.


EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy calls for tougher ozone standards


In an article today, McCarthy proposes to update national ozone pollution standards, lowering the current standard of 75 parts per billion to a standard in the range of 65-70 parts per billion.  She notes that in the US, one in ten children already suffers from asthma, and ozone pollution makes things worse.  If these proposed standards are finalized, this means avoiding 1 million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks for children.  Read the full article here.


Banning Fracking in Texas


A small college town outside of Dallas, Texas  called Denton has defied the odds by hydraulic fracking, in a region that has become one of the biggest fracking areas in the country. The ban came into effect yesterday with 60% of residents voting in favor of the ban. Part of the bans success is owed to a perception by residents that the company overstepped it’s bounds by building a fracking site dangerously close to a children’s hospital, potential putting patients at risk of developing health problems.

A major figure in the move to ban fracking in Denton was a one Cathy McMullen, whose house was close to a well, who overcame death threats and industry bullying to help organize a group of mostly female activists to push back the fracking invasion.

In an interview with the Guardian, “They underestimated us completely,” she said. “I think they all just thought: ‘Oh, it’s just Cathy.’ I don’t think they saw the storm clouds on the horizon, and that industry was creating this storm, and that it was going to blow into town, and everybody was just sick of it.”

“Over the last few years, oil companies have fracked wells in Denton churchyards and on school properties, in suburban developments, and on the campuses of two local universities. There are a total of 280 oil wells inside Denton city limits, which will go on producing under the ban.”

But is spite of all the odds, McMullen and the protesters battled on by canvasing door to door, holding barbeques and free concerts, anything to get the word out. The victory in Denton is a hopeful reminder that grassroots activism can still overcome big business.

“The camaraderie was incredible,” McMullen said. So was the sense that she had outwitted the oil industry.“I would rather be underestimated than overestimated. If people don’t think you are going to be a challenge to them, you can fly under the radar and do what you need to do.”


Sandra Free To Stop The Fracking


Sandra Steingraber was released from a New York jail shortly after midnight on Wednesday after serving 15 days for blockading the gates to a natural-gas storage facility. Read more.

Detroit Iron and Steel Co., Detroit, Michigan, circa 1903

Arising from the Ashes? Environmental Health in Detroit


By Tim Lougheed for Environmental Health Perspectives

Many established industrial centers across the United States endured a rough introduction to the global economy during the second half of the twentieth century, but few matched the roller coaster ride of Detroit, Michigan. The city emerged from World War II as the triumphant forge for what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dubbed the “great arsenal of democracy.”1 Factories that had once churned out passenger cars and their components now supplied the U.S. military with all manner of vehicles, weapons, and other equipment. By the 1950s the city’s consumer economy had been restored, along with Detroit’s status as the epicenter of North American automobile production and a host of thriving smokestack industries.

But already an exodus had begun. The urban population peaked at more than 1.8 million in 1950.2 Today’s population sits at just over a third of that number,3 a statistic that speaks to how far this urban landscape has been reshaped during the past few decades. Race riots, economic devastation, political corruption, municipal bankruptcy—Detroit has withstood some staggering socioeconomic blows, mirrored by severe environmental health concerns.4,5,6,7,8

Without visiting Detroit, it is easy to imagine a ruined metropolis, but even the most cursory inspection offers evidence of a remarkable resilience. Environmental and public health problems can still be readily found, but so too can testaments to a desire to move past this legacy and create something new. In the words of the city’s official motto, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus: We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.

Perception and Pollution

Those words hang on the wall of the Delray Neighborhood House, a small community center tucked into a crowded industrial setting southwest of Detroit’s downtown core. Next to the motto are framed portraits of a proud past, including local landmarks, elegant ferryboats plying the riverfront, and epic images of the Detroit International Exposition Fair of 1889, which vaulted Delray into the cutting edge of electrification and modern plumbing as befitted one of America’s most industrialized communities. Annexed by Detroit early in the twentieth century, city planners repeatedly drafted zoning strategies that intensified the area’s industrial character.9

By the 1960s, Highway I-75 had cut a swath through Delray; residents are preparing for further upheaval over the next few years, with the construction of a massive plaza to accommodate the road system for a new bridge to Canada. The city’s 2012 land use map shows a large amount of land designated M4—intensive industrial—in many cases abutting blocks designated R, for residential.10,11 Delray is among several parts of the city where declining population and rising poverty and unemployment meet the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s definition of “distressed.”12

This label comes as no surprise to Rhonda Anderson, who grew up just north of Delray and has become an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club’s Detroit branch. She knows Delray Neighborhood House as a place for bringing residents together to discuss the environmental condition of their community, as well as the scene of meetings—sometimes contentious—with representatives from government and industry, whom the residents deem responsible for that condition.

“This area is not well,” she says, pointing to a number of localized health problems. At the head of the list are asthma and cardiovascular disease, both of which have been studied for decades in connection with air levels of particulate matter measured at various points in Detroit and southeastern Michigan.13,14,15,16,17,18

In the late 1990s, growing awareness of Detroit’s high prevalence of asthma prompted the creation of Community Action Against Asthma (CAAA), a community-based participatory research partnership. Members of CAAA have drawn attention to the links between air pollution and this chronic condition, and have gone into local homes to educate individuals about symptoms and prevention.19

Heightened occurrence of asthma in Detroit and other major cities has been attributed to proximity to major roads,20industrial emissions such as sulfur dioxide (SO2),21 and indoor exposures such as cockroach antigens.22 For her part, Anderson is suspicious of piles of black, carbonaceous material known as petroleum coke (“petcoke”) that sat along the river for several months. She acknowledges that petcoke may not necessarily have been any worse for residents’ health than the SO2 emissions from nearby steel plants. But she regards the black piles as a greater source of stress for residents, a visible reminder of contamination in their surroundings. “You don’t get that same sense from issues like SO2 because you can’t see it,” she explains.

A by-product of oil refining and similar hydrocarbon-cracking operations, petcoke can be used much like coal. For the Marathon Petroleum Corporation, which operates a large refinery near Delray, petcoke is an attractive resale item. After Marathon began processing heavier crude from the oil sands of Alberta in 2012, the refinery’s output of petcoke increased.23 Large piles of the material began to appear on the Detroit River waterfront, awaiting shipment to buyers, where they attracted media and political attention.24 The mayor of Detroit ordered the piles moved, and by the end of 2013, owner Koch Carbon had relocated the piles to sites outside the state.25 In July 2014 the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied an application to allow bulk storage of petcoke along the river, citing the inadequacy of proposed measures to control fugitive dust.26

Neighborhood Health

Although the petcoke is gone, many other piles of material—coal, salt, sand, limestone, and more—still line the Detroit River as they have for decades, both fuel for and fruit of the city’s industries. Just off the river, perched between Delray and the southwestern city limits of Detroit, is Zug Island, which has achieved near-mythic status in the pantheon of North America’s most heavily industrialized places. Created in the late 1800s when developers bought 325 acres of land and carved a canal around it, the island became home to a large blast furnace at the beginning of the twentieth century. The steel operations expanded and changed hands over the ensuing decades, becoming what is now the Great Lakes Works facility of United States Steel Corporation.27

Zug Island’s environmental notoriety has been fostered by incidents such as a 1998 fire at a Honeywell International tar plant, which was subsequently cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for releasing substantial amounts of carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene and dibenz[a,h]anthracene, a probable human carcinogen.28 Even the sound of the place has drawn attention, as Canadians living across from Zug Island have blamed it for an intense hum that some mistook for an earthquake.29,30 Travelling southwest down the Detroit River reveals several steel mills, coal-fired power plants, and one of the continent’s largest waste incineration plants.

Even so, comparisons with other cities have placed Detroit somewhere in the middle of the pack with respect to environmental health risks associated with fine particulate air pollution.16 Similarly, monitoring between 2001 and 2007 actually showed a decline in the concentrations of most of the air pollutants identified as agents of concern, among them arsenic, nickel, formaldehyde, and benzene.31 While improved air-quality control measures may have played a part in this drop, other possible factors include business closures and reduced traffic volumes—results of the economic and social turmoil that has caused the city to lose so many businesses and people.31

As residents and researchers continue to assess Detroit’s environmental health, they are beginning to pay more attention to the role of residents’ perceptions in determining quality of life. And besides studying how air pollution in the region affects physical health outcomes such as asthma,15,32,33 the mental health impacts also have been explored.34,35,36,37

From 2008 to 2013, teams led by the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health worked with local volunteers to collect detailed mental and physical health information from 1,500 randomly selected city residents in an initiative called the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study. Sandro Galea, chairman of the Columbia University Department of Epidemiology, was already steeped in this field when he became the principal investigator of the study. “Our group’s research agenda has long been on mental health and how it is produced in urban environments,” he says. “To that end we were interested in highlighting this in the Detroit context.”

In addition to providing tissue samples, study participants also answered questions about elements of psychological well being, including food security, presence of a social network, and exposure to trauma, such as violent experiences or the sudden death of a loved one. The researchers also collected information about the state of each neighborhood’s infrastructure, including the number of abandoned homes and whether sidewalks were maintained. This undertaking has made it possible to create city maps (yet unpublished) outlining levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder.

“The duality between mental and physical health is, to my mind, historical and not such a useful paradigm any more,” Galea says. “The two are not separate—they are, rather, both manifestations of physiologic imbalance and are deeply intertwined.”

Modern Disparities

Galea suggests that Detroit is not unique but instead paradigmatic of communities around the world that depend on heavy industry. “Detroit represents, unfortunately, an interesting case study in urban adversity,” he says. “However, it is important to remember that most people are resilient to such adversity and are thriving, despite the challenges.”

Paul Mohai has had his own close encounters with this adversity and resilience, leaving him all the more interested in the tears and repairs to Detroit’s urban tapestry. His curiosity was originally piqued soon after he joined the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment in 1987, when he encountered Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, a provocative report by the Commission for Racial Justice that found hazardous waste sites were disproportionately located in areas inhabited by racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.38

“The report found that the people-of-color percentages in zip codes containing hazardous waste facilities were double that of zip code areas that contained none,” he says. “Furthermore, it found that the people-of-color percentages were tripled in zip code areas containing two or more such facilities. A multivariate statistical analysis also demonstrated that the minority percentage of the zip code area was the best predictor of which zip codes had hazardous waste facilities in them and which did not.”

For Mohai, this finding spawned an ongoing interest with how some groups bear a distinct environmental burden. In the early 1990s he and his colleague Bunyan Bryant, then director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the University of Michigan, measured the distance of a probability sample of Detroit area residents to nearby hazardous waste sites and polluting industrial facilities. They found that black residents consistently lived closer to such sites than white residents.39,40 Furthermore, in a subsequent national study Mohai and colleagues discovered that Michigan was the state with the greatest racial disparities around hazardous waste facilities, with people of color making up 66% of the residents living within 3 km of such facilities versus 19% of the residents living further away.41 Other state- and national-level studies showed similar patterns.4,42,43

But Mohai says historical context is essential to understanding how some neighborhoods become demographically challenged and environmentally compromised. In one of his statewide studies, Mohai and colleague Robin Saha, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana, found little evidence to show that facilities constructed in Michigan before 1970 were sited disproportionately in minority and poor communities. It was not until after 1970, they found, that such patterns began to emerge.4

Mohai and Saha hypothesize that growing environmental awareness in the United States during the 1960s—which culminated in the first Earth Day demonstrations in the spring of 1970,44 the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),45 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency46—led to increasing concerns about the harmful effects of pollution in people’s neighborhoods. These concerns were further heightened by coverage of the Love Canal disaster, in which residents discovered their Niagara Falls neighborhood had been built over a hazardous waste site and the waste was seeping into their homes and backyards.47

NIMBYism—“not in my backyard” syndrome—became an increasing response to growing public concerns about environmental contamination, Mohai says. “Unequal resources and political representation and clout put poor and [minority] communities at a disadvantage in trying to resist the siting of hazardous waste and other locally unwanted land uses—LULUs—in their backyards,” he says. “Indeed, we found that the greatest racial and socioeconomic disparities in [new] facility siting occurred in the decade right after the Love Canal story broke in 1979.”

Mohai maintains that siting decisions have not always been made to the disadvantage of poorer people. “At one point we weren’t noticing pollution,” he says. “We weren’t worrying about the danger.” More recently the environmental movement and subsequent research, education, policy making, and awareness have resulted in significant and permanent changes in how many view and approach environmental problems, Mohai says. “Still,” he adds, “it took the environmental justice movement to raise awareness that many poor and people-of-color communities were left behind.”

“We Hope for Better Things”

That time before worry is well within living memory for Dolores Leonard, a retired college professor who was born in River Rouge, which abuts Delray. Now approaching 80, she remembers at age 12 asking her father why people placed tarpaulins over their parked cars. Even after learning it was to prevent soot from pitting the paint, she says it didn’t cross her mind until she was a young parent herself to consider what that same air pollution might be doing to people who breathed it. “We took for granted Great Lakes Steel just spewing out whatever it was spewing out,” she says. “And if the sky was red, or it was orange or gold—whatever it was, we just accepted that to be normal. We did not know that it was impacting our health.”

Today we do know, Leonard adds, and that knowledge led her to join the ranks of Detroit’s lively community of environmental health advocates. Their effect on the region has been palpable. The city is becoming known for its thriving urban agriculture movement, as depopulated neighborhoods put empty lots to work as community gardens.48 Miles of downtown Detroit River waterfront are being transformed into an extensive paved walkway,49 and Belle Isle, a popular park once accessible only by boat, is being renovated after years of neglect, with restorations aimed at enticing both people and wildlife back to the site.50

Back near River Rouge and Delray, residential and corporate citizens are attempting to embellish the natural spaces that remain in this heavily industrialized landscape. In the Oakwood Heights neighborhood, neighboring Marathon Petroleum launched a two-stage buyout in 2011 to reshape the area in the wake of a $2.2-billion upgrade and expansion of the refinery. Homeowners were offered a premium price for their homes, starting at $50,000, around 50% more than the average appraised value of local properties. Some 90% of homeowners enrolled in this program, which eventually gave Marathon access to hundreds of vacant lots.51 The company subsequently hired the nonprofit Detroit Greenworks, which trains local residents in landscaping and forestry, to begin cleaning up these properties in preparation for more ambitious green-space plans.

One afternoon this fall, Marathon representative Honor Sheard came out to Delray Neighborhood House to discuss ongoing efforts with a group of journalists touring the city. When bluntly asked by one reporter what it means to work for a company that still has such a profound environmental footprint, Sheard was equally blunt in stating that the company is dedicated to improving whatever it can. “I have some land, I have some money,” she told the reporter. “How do I make this site that I can control better? How can I bring something to the community? How can I make the community a little brighter?”

Sheard was articulating the same commitment heard from so many residents, that this is home and leaving is not an option. For Leonard, that commitment is visceral. “Not everyone can leave the community,” she says. “If you have skills, if you have knowledge, it behooves you to bring the others up and help. You can’t be selfish. You have to stay, and you have to help.”


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8. EPA. Detroit River–Western Lake Erie Basin Indicator Project Indicator: Lead Poisoning in Detroit, Michigan [website]. Grosse Ile, MI:Large Lakes Research Station, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (updated 26 August 2009). Available:​dicators/lead.html [accessed 24 November 2014].

9. Thomas JM. Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit (Michigan) (Creating the North American Landscape). Baltimore, MD:The Johns Hopkins University Press (March 1997).

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