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Reproductive Rights as an Environmental Justice Issue

Woman consulting a gynecologist at an abortion clinic.
Photo credit: Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

By Caitlin Loventhal.

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon be taking away the right to an abortion, and it has many across the nation in distress. On Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022, a Supreme Court draft opinion was leaked to the public outlining the Court’s opinion on a case challenging Roe v. Wade (1973). Roe v. Wade is a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1973 that made having an abortion a protected right. With the shift of the Court further to the political right, many of the constitutional laws and federal rulings that are seen as ‘liberal,’ like Roe are in jeopardy. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it would be up to individual states to determine how to handle abortion laws. As we think about what it would mean if Roe v. Wade were overturned, it’s important to look at how reproductive rights impacts all communities. It is also important to look at how reproductive justice relates to other issues, like environmental justice.

Reproductive justice is defined as: “All people having the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about their gender, bodies, sexuality, and families for themselves and their communities.” While environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” What these definitions have in common is that they both address the involvement of all people in decision-making so that all people can represent the needs of themselves and their communities.

Although the overturning of Roe v. Wade will affect all women and individuals able to conceive, the burden of this ruling will be much heavier on the working class than it will be on the wealthy. For states that outlaw abortion, the only safe option would be to travel out-of-state. While an inconvenience, this option would be financially viable for the upper class. This would be a lot harder for members of the working class to manage and would not be financially feasible for many people. As a result, there will likely be an increase in the number of working-class individuals having illegal, unsafe abortions. Possibly creating health crisis amongst working-class individuals across the United States.

The people who cannot travel for abortions are usually members of communities currently impacted by environmental hazards. Some of these environmental hazards contribute to issues such as cancer, birth defects, and infertility. If abortion is outlawed, residents of jeopardized areas will be forced to choose between carrying a potentially unhealthy child to term or risking their own health by having an unsafe abortion. It is a situation in which no one wins. Additionally, environmental hazards can create health effects making it unsafe for the mother to continue their pregnancy.

Environmental justice and reproductive rights are related, and always will be. As we look into our future, we must consider how abortion laws impact communities across the United States, and how these issues will impact the health of generations to come. At CHEJ, we fight for the health of communities across the US, and we hope others will too.

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Environmental Justice Endeavors in Orange County, CA

Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ) logo.

By Eeron Wilson.

Across the United States, a multitude of parties are dedicated to fighting environmental racism and injustices that unequally affect communities because of their demographics. Towns primarily comprised of people of color, non-English speaking immigrants, and lower-wealth individuals are significantly more likely to be affected by environmental injustices. We have heard of cities with unclean drinking water going unnoticed by state officials for far too long. Polluted air from excessive carbon and greenhouse gases affects the air quality of a given area. The only way to truly combat the injustice is to organize, strategize, realize, and act with the intent to improve the quality of life of those who are less fortunate.

In Orange County, California, a handful of groups are devoted to improving the lives of those subjected to unrestrained environmental injustices, despite risk-assessment strategies implemented by local agencies to identify risks of harmful pollutants and toxins that affect the environment. One of those organizations is the Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ). Founded in 2019, OCEJ has acquired attention in the media due to a campaign they spearheaded: “PloNo Santa Ana.”

Santa Ana, CA is facing a severe soil-lead contamination crisis. This crisis is impacting communities of color and those living at or below the poverty line. Due to the lack of testing in the area, both the people and the agriculture struggle with exposure to gigantic quantities of lead. OCEJ collected soil samples with the help of the University of California, Irvine’s Public Health Department in search for the specific amount of present lead. OCEJ also collected samples from roadway land use zones, parks, and residential and commercial areas. Their findings have concluded that over half of these soils contain amounts of lead surpassing state and federal standards. Fortunately, Santa Ana is making updates to its General Plan (GP) and has added a section on environmental justice. To aid in decision-making and policy creation, OCEJ sought to address soil remediation plans and health care endeavors. Furthermore, prominent figures, like Kathleen Treseder, have run for city councils to put environmental justice initiatives at the forefront to ensure that equity is displayed.

To find out more about OCEJ, click here:

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One Hundred Years of Cancer

Photo credit: Andrew Lichtenstein (Getty Images)

By Hunter Marion.

Imagine if hundreds of nuclear reactors concentrated in areas encompassing about 700,000–800,000 people in total were to have openly leaked copious amounts of radiation into adjacent neighborhoods for decades –a century even– with no enforced restrictions whatsoever. It would be absurd! Especially since nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima have dramatically elevated fears of radiation exposure amongst the public. However, trade out the radiation for carcinogenic toxins and the nuclear reactors for petrochemical plants, and that is exactly what is happening in the “Golden Triangle” of Texas and along Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.

Since “black gold” was discovered at Spindletop in 1901, petrochemical plants and refineries have been metastasizing along the Gulf Coast for over one hundred years. Residents within these areas have been virtually locked into a parasitic relationship with companies like Gulf Oil, U.S. Rubber, Texaco, ExxonMobil, Goodrich, Koch Industries, etc. They have depended on petrochemical companies for employment, municipal funding, and education programs, but in exchange have suffered consistent exposure to carcinogenic chemicals like dioxin, benzene, styrene, and butadiene. Such prolonged exposure has resulted in unprecedented levels of breast and ovarian cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia among citizens directly and indirectly affiliated with the refineries.

On average, an estimated 1 in 5,000 people in the Golden Triangle and Cancer Alley are at an incremental lifetime cancer risk. The EPA’s upper limit of acceptable cancer risk is 1 in 10,000. According to ProPublica, “an estimated 256,000 people are being exposed to risks beyond this threshold and […] an estimated 43,000 people are being subjected to at least triple this level of risk.” Although institutions like EPA, OSHA, and even Johns Hopkins University have repeatedly studied the correlation between the petrochemical refineries and local cancer rates, official results have been mixed. However, in 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did report concerning levels of benzene in Texas and pushed OSHA to issue a non-binding guideline lowering the standard of industrial benzene use. This guideline was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980, who ruled in favor of petrochemicals. The opinion declared that a “safe” workplace was not guaranteed as being “risk-free.” Thus, workers’ (and thereby surrounding residents’) exposure to toxic chemicals were deemed justifiable “risks.”

Benzene and dioxin have been two of the most prevalent carcinogens produced by these refineries. Benzene, a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid/vapor, can interrupt important cell functions in your body, such as stopping red or white blood cell production. Long-term exposure to benzene can result in leukemia or severe bone marrow damage. Despite being labelled as a carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, petrochemical companies continuously use –and under-report– it. For example, in 2000, a whistleblower for Koch Industries reported that the company concealed the discharge of 91 metric tons of benzene over Corpus Christi, TX from environmental authorities (Jane Mayer, Dark Money). Dioxin is invisible to the naked eye, usually resembling dust. Dioxin is not intentionally synthesized; however, it frequently forms from burning wastes or dioxin-contaminated products. Refinery flares have been associated with dioxin contamination via reports of glowing ashes raining out from their exhausts. Small towns like Mossville, LA have been decimated by dioxin. Sullivan Ramirez, a local activist, reported that there “wasn’t one block that didn’t have cancer.” An EPA inspection of the average level of dioxins in the blood of Mossville residents was found to be triple that of the general U.S. population. Across in Reserve, LA, Mary Hampton made a similar observation: “Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer… It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying.” Reserve’s risk of cancer from air toxicity (which includes dioxin exposure) is 50 times that of the national average.

It is necessary to emphasize that the majority of residents within the Golden Triangle and Cancer Alley are low-income, Black and/or Hispanic people. This is an environmental justice issue compounded by systemic racism and classism. Additionally, a sizable chunk of Cancer Alley is sitting atop some of the world’s most rapidly sinking land (Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky), layering another existential threat against residents. If the residents were wealthier, whiter, or more radioactive, then this problem would probably be taken more seriously by regulatory authorities. But it is not.

If you want to learn more about national “cancer clusters” like those in Texas and Louisiana, ProPublica has created an in-depth mapping tool.

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More Evidence of Environmental Injustice: Redlined Areas Have Higher Levels of Pollution

Photo credit: Washington Post.

By Stephen Lester.

A study published this spring by researchers at Columbia University found that areas redlined by federal loan programs since the late 1930s ended up with more drilling wells, polluting industries, major highways, and shipping ports than non-redlined areas. This research adds to the growing body of evidence showing how communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution that results in increased poor health. 

“Our study adds to the evidence that structural racism in federal policy is associated with the disproportionate siting of oil and gas wells in marginalized neighborhoods,” said lead author Joan Casey, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School in a press statement. “These exposure disparities have implications for community environmental health, as the presence of active and inactive wells contribute to ongoing air pollution.”

According to an article on this study in the Washington Post, starting in the late 1930s, the federally sponsored “Home Owners’ Loan Corp (HOLC) marked areas across the United States as unworthy of loans because of an ‘infiltration of foreign born, Negro, or lower grade population’ and bordered them in red. This made it harder for home buyers of color to get mortgages; the corporation awarded A grades for solidly White areas and D’s for largely non-White areas that lenders were advised to shun.”

The researchers found that historically redlined neighborhoods that scored lowest in racially discriminatory maps drawn by the government’s loan corporation had twice the density of oil and gas wells than comparable neighborhoods that scored highest. “These wells likely contribute to disproportionate pollution and related health problems in redlined neighborhoods.”

According to the researchers’ press statement, oil and gas wells expose residents to air and water pollution, noise, and other sources of stress that can increase the risk of many types of disease: cardiovascular disease, impaired lung function, anxiety, depression, preterm birth, and impaired fetal growth. An estimated 17 million Americans live within one mile of at least one active oil or gas well.

This study provides a clear example of how institutional racism can define public policy and how it can impact people’s lives and their health for decades. 

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Polluted Zip Codes: Hampton Roads, VA

Little girl drinking lead-exposed water with her mom and sister.
Photo credit: iStock

By Arianna Mackey

I was raised in Hampton Roads, Virginia. It’s a military area with plentiful bases and government facilities. It also happens to be home to many lower-income, minority people. According to the Hampton City Council’s website, “49% of the Hampton Roads area identifies as Black or African American.” Hampton Roads also ranks very high on Environmental Justice screenings such as the EPA’s EJSCREEN and ECHO. These screening tools show that minority communities in VA rank high in Superfund site proximity, poor air and water quality, and exposure to wastewater discharges. Communities with minority and lower-income demographic indicators are often neglected in terms of environmental enforcement. Even though many of these are government facilities and have regulations to follow, they have long records of noncompliance. This is extremely detrimental to the people residing within these areas, as they may experience environmental hazards similar to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. 

In this area of Virginia, high levels of lead are often found in the dirt and water, which is a primary concern for parents with growing children. 166 out of 100,000 children in this area get lead poisoning each year. Lead poisoning is often linked to developmental and behavioral issues down the line in a child’s life. For more information and resources about lead contamination in Virginia please visit: United Parents Against Lead and Other Environmental Hazards. Residents of Newport News and Norfolk, Virginia are also being poisoned by coal dust emitted from nearby facilities and industrial plants. Gas lines in Chesapeake pose a serious threat too as they emit harmful gasses like formaldehyde and other carcinogens, not to mention running the constant risk of sudden explosion. Chesapeake also has the worst air pollution in the state due to neighborhoods surrounding compressor stations. Despite all this visible pollution, there are not any environmental justice policies in place within the Commonwealth of Virginia. Environmental justice policies must be enforced to protect the environment for all, especially lower income/minority populations.    

In addition to existing environmental racism, there are several plans and projects that will worsen the environmental degradation in the state of Virginia. Virginia Natural Gas, which serves more than 300,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers in southeastern Virginia, proposed a plan in 2020 called the “Header Improvement Project” (HIP). It would consist of 3 fracked pipelines, 3 gas compressor stations, and span 24 miles, impacting various cities in Hampton Roads, such as my hometown, Chesapeake, and Prince William, Hanover, and New Kent counties. The project would also be routed solely through low-income and African American neighborhoods. Locals rebranded the effort as the “Header Injustice Project.” Fortunately, this project was halted and the permit for this gas infrastructure was denied because of the grassroots efforts by the Stop the Abuse of Virginian Energy (SAVE) Coalition. If passed, this environmentally racist and destructive pipeline could have threatened local drinking water quality, increased noise and air pollution, and jeopardized local public health and safety. 

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Is My Makeup Killing Me?

Photo Credit: Getty Images

By Sharon Franklin

For someone who has used make-up for most of my adult life, I found this article by Elizabeth Gribkoff of Environmental Health News alarming. She recently reported on a study from last summer showing that a number of cosmetics contained PFAS (poly-fluoroalkyl substances), which are a class of compounds linked to cancer and reproductive problems. She also worried that [f]or clean beauty brands, getting PFAS out of makeup might be easier said than done.” 

In the Fall of 2021, Mamavation found that dozens of makeup products contained organic fluorine, an indicator for PFAS. When first looking at the Mamavation testing results it appeared to indicate widespread contamination, and in a few cases, the intentional addition of the harmful compounds in beauty products marketed as “clean” or “green.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has had a hands-off policy in regulating the safety of personal care products, even after multiple researchers and government officials have found PFAS-contaminated drinking water around the United States in recent years, especially near factories where PFAS is made or used in industrial processes. Researchers are especially concerned about potential PFAS exposure for fetuses and infants.  

Until 2021, there were no studies looking at how much PFAS were in North American cosmetics. With that in mind, a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, and other institutions tested more than 200 mascaras, concealers, eye shadows, and other cosmetics from North America. What the researchers discovered surprised even them. They found roughly half the tested products contained the PFAS indicator organic fluorine. Of the 83 lipsticks, mascaras, and other beauty products that Mamavation tested, 54 had organic fluorine, with eight containing organic fluorine levels higher than 100 parts per million. These are amounts which experts say could indicate the intentional use of PFAS as an ingredient. See Mamavation’s full testing results.

Leah Segedie, founder of Mamavation, contacted the brands before publishing the test results. She told them that she understood their concerns around high testing costs and the amount of work it would take to ensure clean supply chains. However, she informed them that, “[T]he point is you’re still selling this makeup to people who… are paying top dollar for cleaner cosmetics that keep them safer because they have to wear it every day, [which is] all the more reason you need to figure this out.”   

The fallout from the PFAS in Cosmetics Study unleashed a torrent of news coverage, bills, and even a spate of class-action lawsuits against makeup brands like CoverGirl, bareMinerals, and L’Oreal over allegations of false advertising. Lindsay Dahl, senior vice president at the clean cosmetics brand Beautycounter has stated, “Oftentimes, those suppliers don’t know the answers to the questions you’re asking even though they should be the expert, or they don’t want to look for the answers because they don’t want to tell you what it is.” What can cosmetic consumers do to protect themselves from PFAS exposure? Consumers can visit Clearya’s website to find information that automatically screens makeup products that may contain PFAS and other hazardous ingredients. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database also provides safety reviews of thousands of cosmetics, sunscreens, and other personal care products.

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Biodiversity Loss from Pollution Impacts Human Health and Lifestyle

Image Credit: Wikipedia

By Isabella Caldarelli

Scientists recognize five mass extinction events that have occurred throughout the history of the earth. Many think that we now are living through a sixth mass extinction event, which is driven by the destruction of our natural ecosystems from an oversaturation of hazardous waste and harmful chemicals. This pollution directly impacts the rate of biodiversity loss. Yet the use and production of chemicals and industrial byproducts continues to grow because of increased population growth and consumption rates.

In 2017, it was estimated that “global sales in chemicals were worth approximately USD 3.5 trillion[…] and chemical production is expected to double in size again between 2017 and 2030.” A rise in chemical production, without proper management, mitigation, and disposal techniques, would increase the already large quantity of hazardous chemicals, litter (such as plastics and microplastics), and other pollutants that are released into the environment. This contamination is extremely widespread — more than 90% of America’s waters and fish are contaminated with pesticides. These chemicals can persist in the environment for years, destroying entire ecosystems and accelerating the rate of biodiversity loss, which is already occurring at a breakneck pace. Biodiversity loss is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate (the extinction rate that would presumably occur without human influence). Using a generous estimate of species numbers, between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year.

The damage we are causing to the earth’s ecosystems and species also poses a grave personal risk as human-caused biodiversity loss among plant and animal species in turn negatively impacts our quality of life and health. Animal and plant species provide material for food, shelter, energy, and clothing. A reduction in the diversity of species in existence causes a decrease in both the amount and type of goods that can be produced for human benefit. A decrease in biodiversity could also have enormous consequences for human health, both physiologically and psychologically. As of 2013, 50% of all prescribed drugs contain or are based on plant, animal, or microbial products. A decrease in the number of plants and animals in existence would decrease the subjects available for study and use in the medical field, inhibiting the growth and capability of the medical industry. From a psychological perspective, nature has a proven positive impact on mental wellness. Nature underpins all dimensions of human health and directly contributes to non-material aspects of quality of life, such as inspiration, learning, stress reduction, and other physical and psychological experiences.

Animal species have a direct effect on the environment too. Though keystone species such as coral, wolves, and sea otters are often recognized as the linchpins of their specific ecosystems, the extinction of even minor species can have major consequences for the entire environment. For example, the extinction of pollinator species such as bees can negatively impact crop yield and food production. Likewise, the extinction of species such as dung beetles can lead to dung accumulation that causes disease. Ecosystems and the many species living within them perform functions that sustain air, water, and soil quality, regulate the climate, provide pollination, and control pests. The complete removal of a species from a singular ecosystem can have wide-ranging consequences.

Human beings are inextricably linked to the environment in which we live, and the extinction of our fellow organisms deeply impacts human lifestyle and health. Because the improper disposal of toxic waste and harmful chemicals released into the environment during production and manufacture are unchecked, our planet’s biodiversity is threatened. We need to learn to take greater care of the environment to protect ourselves and our fellow inhabitants.