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Juneteenth and Environmental Justice: Intersecting Struggles for Freedom and Equity

By Gregory Kolen.

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, marks the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Texas were informed of their emancipation, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This day has evolved into a broader celebration of African American freedom, culture, and achievements. As we reflect on Juneteenth, it is crucial to recognize its relevance to ongoing struggles for justice, including the environmental justice movement. Both movements, at their core, seek to address deep-seated inequities and strive for a future where all people can thrive.

Historical Context and Shared Struggles

The environmental justice movement emerged in the late 20th century in response to the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards borne by marginalized communities, particularly communities of color and low-income groups. This movement recognizes that environmental issues are not just about nature but are deeply intertwined with social justice, economic inequality, and systemic racism. Similarly, Juneteenth is a reminder of the historical and ongoing fight against racial oppression and the quest for true freedom and equality.

African American communities have long been at the forefront of environmental justice activism. From protesting hazardous waste sites in Warren County, North Carolina, in the 1980s to advocating for cleaner air in urban neighborhoods, these communities have highlighted how environmental degradation disproportionately affects people of color. This connection underscores a broader understanding of freedom and justice, one that includes the right to live in a safe and healthy environment.

A Continuing Challenge

Environmental racism refers to the policies and practices that disproportionately expose communities of color to environmental hazards. These communities often live near industrial facilities, waste disposal sites, and other sources of pollution. The resulting health disparities, such as higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other illnesses, reflect a legacy of systemic neglect and discrimination.

Juneteenth reminds us that freedom from slavery was just the beginning of the struggle for African Americans. Similarly, achieving environmental justice requires confronting and dismantling the structures that perpetuate these inequities. It calls for recognizing the historical context in which these environmental injustices occur and addressing the root causes of racial and economic disparities.

Building a Just and Sustainable Future

The intersection of Juneteenth and environmental justice is also about envisioning a future where equity and sustainability go hand in hand. This vision includes:

  1. Inclusive Policy Making: Ensuring that marginalized communities have a voice in environmental decision-making processes. Policies should be designed with the input and leadership of those most affected by environmental harms.
  2. Equitable Access to Resources: Promoting access to clean air, water, and land, as well as green spaces and renewable energy sources. This includes addressing food deserts and promoting sustainable agriculture in underserved communities.
  3. Economic Empowerment: Creating green jobs and economic opportunities in marginalized communities. This can help address both environmental and economic inequities, fostering resilience and self-sufficiency.
  4. Education and Awareness: Raising awareness about environmental justice issues and their connections to broader social justice movements. Education can empower communities to advocate for their rights and hold polluters accountable.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, we honor the resilience and contributions of African Americans throughout history. At the same time, we acknowledge the ongoing struggles for justice and equity. The environmental justice movement, like the fight for civil rights, is rooted in the belief that all people deserve to live free from oppression and harm. By connecting these two movements, we can work towards a future where freedom and justice are not just ideals but realities for all.

Toxic Tuesdays

How the Duration of Exposure Affects Toxicity

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

How the Duration of Exposure Affects Toxicity

CHEJ has previously written about the importance of considering multiple chemical exposures when assessing the toxicity of exposure to toxic chemicals. In addition, it is also important to consider the duration of exposure. How long was a person exposed? What was the concentration of the substance(s) during this period of time are critical to truly understanding the cumulative effects that a person has suffered? Without this information, we can only partially understand the risks of exposure to toxic chemicals. 

Yet when evaluating whether exposures to toxic chemicals pose risks to human health, the government’s approach is usually very narrow: it assumes there is a single chemical from a single source at a single point in time with a single exposure pathway causing a single health effect. This approach makes risk assessment more feasible and understandable, but it does not reflect the reality of our lives.

In reality, we are exposed to multiple chemicals at a time and exposures can happen over a long period of time. This means that considering the potential effects of a single exposure to a single chemical isn’t sufficient for evaluating public health risks. We need to include cumulative risks that account for both multiple chemical exposures and exposure over time in order to begin to understand the risks to public health. But incorporating these parameters into a risk assessment poses significant new challenges that  requires more estimates and generates additional uncertainty than the traditional risk assessment approach.

In many cases, exposure assessments assume that exposure to a chemical happens in a single instant in time. In some cases – like cancer risk – EPA assumes that risk is proportional to the lifetime dose. In general, longer exposure means greater risk, but the relationship between duration of exposure and health risk is complicated. The risk depends on the effects an exposure has on the body and the body’s response to it. In some cases, the body may adapt to exposure and the threat over time may be less than additive. In other cases, the body may become more sensitive and the threat over time may be more than additive. Repeated exposure can also influence health risk: past exposure to some chemicals can make us more vulnerable to subsequent exposure. And how do you consider the effects caused by exposure to multiple chemicals that target the same organ in the body can cause more damage than exposure to any of those chemicals individually?

The effect of exposure over time is important to consider in risk assessments, but agencies like EPA and ATSDR do not have comprehensive frameworks for how to assess this cumulative risk. Part of the reason for this is a lack of data. The guideline values we use to evaluate risks are driven by data generated from exposures to a single chemical for a defined period of time. For common chemicals and chemical mixtures that people are exposed to, we need to know how different concentrations and durations of exposure affect health. There is a need for more scientific study on how exposures to chemicals over long periods of time can impact our risk for adverse health effects. Once people have been exposed to chemicals, we also need better tools to measure their past exposure so it can be accounted for in risk assessments.

While more research and data is crucial, there will always be uncertainty in science and data, and we cannot let uncertainty stop us from taking action to protect health. In addition to more scientific study, we need clearer guidelines from federal agencies regarding how to consider cumulative risk – both from multiple chemical exposures and exposures over time – in evaluating if an environmental hazard is a threat to human health. We also need to acknowledge how poor the tools we have are at considering cumulative risks caused by exposures to multiple chemicals over time.

Learn about more toxics

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Heat Waves Rolling In

Photo credit: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP

By Leila Waid.

The beginning of summer has already brought immense heat waves throughout the world. Countries in Southeast Asia, such as India and Thailand, already had extreme heat waves in April—with UNICEF stating that the extreme temperatures posed a risk to 243 million children. In the Southwest U.S., June has also seen record-breaking extreme temperatures in early June. With the summer just beginning, how many more heatwaves will the world endure this season, and how many individuals will be at risk?

Heat waves are a significant public health issue because of the variety of health issues they pose. They are a prescient environmental justice issue because, due to climate change, the temperatures will keep climbing to unbearable levels. A study using modeling techniques has found that heat waves will become more extreme and longer-lasting in the latter half of the 21st century. An alarming finding from another study forecasts that “the limit for survivability may be reached at the end of the twenty-first century in many regions of the world” because the combination of high heat and humidity levels (referred to as the wet-bulb temperature) can pose extreme danger to human health.   

One way that heat waves impact human health is by increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is already the number one cause of death in the U.S. According to the American Health Association, close to 50% of the American population has some form of heart disease. This finding means that half of Americans are at an even more increased risk from heat waves. Along with impacting those who already have heart issues, heat waves are also associated with the development of heart disease – with epidemiological studies showcasing that increased temperatures can lead to the development of ischemic heart disease.

Increased temperature places undue stress on the body, and these changes can cause “imbalances in the autonomic control of the heart, increase local arterial pressures, induce systemic inflammation, and impair clotting responses.” Thus, heat waves place those with pre-existing heart disease in increased danger and also increase the risk of heart disease development in the rest of the population. One study modeled how climate change will impact cardiovascular rates in the future and found that death from heart disease could increase from 162% to 233%. Currently, extreme heat causes an estimated 1,651 deaths annually from heart disease. The study projects that this number could increase anywhere from 4,320 to 5,491 deaths by the mid-21st century.  

As with most aspects of health, the impacts are not felt equally across the populations due to societal factors. For example, those with lower socioeconomic status face worse health outcomes during heat waves. One study examined whether insurance status played a role in heat-induced heart attacks and found that it was a critical factor in individuals’ health outcomes. Based in New York, the study found that individuals without health insurance – a stand-in for socioeconomic status (SES) – had a higher risk of myocardial infarction (heart attacks) during extreme heat even than those with health insurance. Another study conducted in Hong Kong found similar results – older individuals with lower SES were more likely to be admitted to the hospital during heat waves than those with higher SES.

Climate change continues to cause record-breaking heat waves year after year, and thus, we need to be aware of all of the risks these temperatures pose to our health. At an individual level, it is essential to understand what factors can place you at risk and to avoid outside activity, if possible, during these extreme temperatures. At a community level, we must look out for one another. For example, this summer, check up on your elderly family members and neighbors and be aware of signs of heat exhaustion and heat strokes in others so that you can provide assistance in case of emergencies. And at a societal level, keep fighting for and supporting climate change policies!

Backyard Talk Homepage

Current Research Is Predicting More Than 50% Of American Adults Will Have Cardiovascular Disease by 2050

By Sharon Franklin.

Current Research Is Predicting More Than 50% Of American Adults

Will Have Cardiovascular Disease by 2050

Is It Related to Their Environment ???

On March 27, 2024, the American Heart Association released new research stating that people who live in areas with social and environmental adversities may have up to twice the increased risk for developing heart disease and stroke.  In this study, environmental adversities included air and water pollution and potentially hazardous and/or toxic sites.  Dr. Sarju Ganatra, M.D., senior author stated, “This study is one of the first to examine the impact of both social and environmental factors in combination and looked at the complex interplay between them,”  

As reported on June 4, 2024 by Jen Christensen, CNN Health, Medical and Wellness Unit that further new research from the American Heart Association Forecasting the Burden of Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke in the United States Through 2050   finds that approximately 61% of US adults will have cardiovascular disease by 2050. This is alarming because it has increased from 28 million in 2020, and now it is predicted that 45 million adults will have some type of cardiovascular disease by 2050. 

The biggest driver of this trend will be the large number of people who have or will develop high blood pressure, which makes them much more likely to develop dangerous problems like a heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems (i.e. heart attacks, atrial fibrillation or “a-fib”, heart failure and congenital heart disease).  By 2050, 22% of the US will be over the age of 65, and this aging population will be another factor contributing to these trends, because the older you get, the more likely you are to have heart problems.

By 2050, people who identify as Hispanic will make up about a quarter of the United States population and are projected to have the greatest population growth for cardiovascular disease or stroke, and people who identify as Black will be 14.4% and the number of people who identify as Asian will also increase to 8.6%, according to the US Census predictions   .  

The June 4, 2024 Heart Association report also offers a closer look at the heart health of children. It finds “concerning trends” in key risk factors, including a predicted increase in the number of kids living with obesity, in large part due to a lack of exercise and poor diet. The report projects that the number of American children with obesity will jump from 20.6% in 2020 to 33% in 2050, meaning 26 million kids will have obesity by that time.  The study also projected that the number of people with high cholesterol will decline due in part to the sharp increase in the number of people who take drugs called statins, which can reduce cholesterol.

So, What Can We Do Now?  The research suggests:

  1.  Prevention efforts to improve population health would be important, and would save America a significant amount of money.  (The costs including direct health care costs and productivity losses are expected to almost triple to more than $1.8 trillion by 2050.)
  • The creation of clinical and policy interventions specifically to help people of color, who are already disproportionally affected by heart problems and who tend to have less access to basic affordable health care.
Toxic Tuesdays

1,2-dichloroethane (1,2-D)

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

1,2-dichloroethane (1,2-D)

1,2-dichloroethane (1,2-D) – also called ethylene dichloride – is a clear, oily liquid with a sweet smell that is man-made and not found in nature. It is used in the production of plastic and vinyl products like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, upholstery, automobile parts, and housewares. It is also added to the leaded gasoline used in airplanes and racecars. 1,2-D was previously used in some household products like carpet cleaners, but most of these products are discontinued. 1,2-D can enter the environment during its production, disposal, or use. It can enter the water and soil, but because it is volatile (meaning it readily evaporates), most 1,2-D ends up in the air. Once in the air, it can persist for many months and travel long distances.

Because most 1,2-D in the environment ends up in the air, people are most likely to be exposed to it by breathing contaminated air. Exposure can cause damage to many organ systems: brain dysfunction such as nausea and blurred vision; gastrointestinal dysfunction such as vomiting, gastritis, and colitis; respiratory dysfunction such as difficulty breathing and bronchitis; immune system dysfunction such as decreased ability to fight infection and decreased blood clotting; liver damage; and kidney damage. In extreme cases, exposure can cause heart attack and death. In studies of laboratory animals, exposure also caused lung, liver, brain, and reproductive cancers. Based on this research, the US Environmental Protection Agency has determined that 1,2-D probably causes cancer in humans.

1,2-D is known to be a very dangerous chemical with multiple harmful effects on human health. It is a positive development that household products with 1,2-D are largely discontinued. However, its continued use in products like PVC pipes and leaded gasoline mean that 1,2-D and its threats to human health remain pervasive in both household and industrial environments.

Learn about more toxics

Backyard Monthly

Backyard Monthly – June 2024

June 2024
CHEJ's "All In" - Spotlight of the Month

The new EPA Museum in Washington D.C., located in the William Jefferson Clinton Building, offers an interactive journey through the history of environmental regulation and conservation in the United States. The museum features a timeline of pivotal events and legislation since the EPA’s establishment in 1970, along with engaging exhibits such as the “Clean Air Act” simulation and the “Superfund Sites” interactive map. It aims to educate visitors about ongoing environmental challenges and the science behind protection efforts, highlighting cutting-edge research and technological advancements.

One of the most compelling exhibits is “Voices of the EPA,” which shares first-hand accounts from EPA employees, scientists, and activists. The museum also looks to the future with exhibits that explore green technologies, renewable energy sources, and ways to reduce environmental footprints. Open to the public with free admission, the EPA Museum is a valuable resource for students, educators, families, and anyone interested in the environment, science, and public policy.

A notable exhibit is dedicated to Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal disaster, highlighting her pivotal role in advocating for the cleanup of the toxic waste site in Niagara Falls, New York. This exhibit delves into Gibbs’ grassroots activism, which led to the evacuation and relocation of hundreds of families and eventually to the creation of the Superfund program. Her story exemplifies the power of community activism in shaping environmental policy and is a poignant reminder of the ongoing need for vigilance in protecting public health and the environment.

Toxic Tuesday

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used in many household products like paint and plumbing materials. This makes people most likely to be exposed to lead in their own homes, through ingesting or inhaling contaminated paint[Read more]

In a recent issue, we discussed the many challenges in evaluating the adverse health effects that result from exposure to a mixture of toxic chemicals. Despite this, scientists still estimate and assess risks by attempting to compensate for these[Read more]

Training Calls

Mary Grace Wolf has facilitated hundreds of fundraising training and mindset workshops, and has been working in grassroots fundraising for over 19 years. 

During this Training Call, she presented her approach to grassroots fundraising[Watch now]

Backyard Talk Blogs

By Stephen Lester. Years ago, when I first got involved in toxics work, I thought that determining the toxicity of a chemical was based on the evidence, the scientific evidence on exposure and health outcomes, primarily in people[Read more]

By Leila Waid. Air pollution poses a major risk to human health and is the fourth leading cause of death globally. Although air pollution regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, have drastically reduced the number of deaths and illnesses[Read more]

By Gregory Kolen II. In the realm of environmental justice, where the intersection of social equity and environmental protection is paramount, effective communication is key. For nonprofits working within this space, brand storytelling is not[Read more]

By Sharon Franklin. On May 1, 2024, Anita Wadhwani of Tennessee Lookout reported that Tennessee environmental groups have filed a suit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over its approval of a pipeline[Read more]

Do you find this information useful? Please consider pitching in and making a contribution to CHEJ. We appreciate your support!

As the warm days of early summer unfold, we are reminded of the beauty and vitality of our natural world. It’s a season of growth, renewal, and possibility—an ideal time to reflect on how we can contribute to a healthier, more equitable environment for all. At The Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), we are dedicated to ensuring that every community has access to clean air, safe water, and a healthy living environment. But we can’t do it without your support.

Your generosity will help us provide essential resources, education, and advocacy to communities disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation. Together, we can make a tangible difference in the lives of countless families and ensure a healthier future for generations to come.

Please consider making a donation to CHEJ this summer. With your help, we can continue to fight for a world where everyone has the right to a safe, healthy environment. Donate today and be a part of the change.