A student’s reflection on the EPA, Superfund and CHEJ

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Maddelene Karlsson. As a Community Health student, I had the opportunity to go as an intern with Center for Health Environment and Justice to the EPA headquarters for a meeting regarding the Superfund program on March 5. This meeting, although very emotional, was also intellectually rewarding and confirming in many ways. It is one thing to read and learn about public health, community health and the topics under those umbrellas in class, but a whole other thing to see it and experience it in reality.
At the meeting, there were six EPA representatives all with different roles, CHEJ founder, staff and interns, community members and a few organizational environmental health advocacy individuals, each one with expertise on specific topics. The goal was to raise the concerns in the communities affected by superfund sites, general superfund issues and to put pressure on the EPA to act faster and more responsible. The community members shared their personal stories and experiences to give everyone an insight of what it is like to live near or on a superfund site, to see their own and their loved ones’ health spiraling downwards without the capacity to do anything about it. One community member expressed the she “doesn’t care about her own health concerns any longer, she’ll deal with it and all that matters is that her children and next generations at least get the chance to grow up healthy.” Another community member said that he “was the only one of his nine siblings still alive, and that after reaching the age of 60, which no one else of his entire family ever did, he is now worried about what health issues he might face” after growing up and living in a highly polluted town all his life. These stories were heartbreaking to me, and what might have been even more heartbreaking was the straight, expressionless faces of some of the EPA representatives. They were even caught off guard by another community member stating that no one of them would ever accept living in any of those conditions or be treated that way by top level leaders and officials, so why do they let other people go through that? Ironically, the EPA clearly states on their website that their core mission is the “protection of human health and the environment” and that they “are committed to providing clean air, water and land for all Americans.” To me it sounds like a mission that is too hard for them to live up to, or maybe it is only for a very few selected, as I observed faces expressed with frustration and distrust, and gloomy eyes filled with hopelessness.
In school, I have learned about the importance of the building blocks of public health for the establishment and management of healthy communities: assessment, policy development and assurance. It sounds like a pretty straight forward model, but in reality, it’s not. Especially when it comes to environmental health, it seems like it sometimes becomes a question of whether it is a human right or privilege to be part of healthy communities. Should it really be this way? In my opinion, no. I have come to the realization that we, the general population are sometimes naïve, we like to think that certain agencies and parts of the social system is there for us to keep us safe, represent us and to provide us with the tools needed for optimal health. Yesterday in that meeting, the EPA showed to me that this is not the way they work, and that the system is in fact very weak. The system is weak because it is full of loopholes and like serpents, they use these loopholes to bolt and dodge their responsibilities. Individuals at grassroots level on the other hand, have power. Lots of power. They are all one essential link each of an unbreakable chain, and what makes them stand out is their support and empowerment of one another and their commitment for battling the problems they face along the way together.

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