Climate Change and Toxic Exposure

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By: Julia Weil, Community Organizing Intern
Climate change alters essentially everything in our environment, and it further widens existing environmental disparities through the impacts of more extreme weather events. While climate change means that heat waves, dust storms, and wildfires will increase in some parts of the country, it also means that severe flooding events and precipitation will increase in others. Additionally, as a product of climate warming, hurricanes are increasing in severity and are slowing down, meaning that they have more capacity to cause greater destruction – the longer they remain in one area, the more damage they are capable of doing.
Environmental disasters already worsen disparities, since wealthier people have greater ability to relocate and to recover financially from the devastation, in addition to the fact that most marginalized communities will bear the brunt of the initial impacts.
However, these environmental injustices are made even worse when existing pollution is taken into account. Toxic waste that is recognized as being dangerous and frequently cancer causing, that is known to be in communities with higher percentages of Black people, Hispanic people,  people living below the poverty level, people with less than a high school education, and linguistically isolated people (people who live in households whose members over 14 speak a language other than English, and who have difficulty speaking English) than the average population, will be mobilized by floods and hurricanes; most likely in ways that will increase exposure in these communities. Several studies found that where monitoring was implemented, soil, drinking water, and surface water in areas local to Superfund sites had higher levels of contamination after hurricanes (1, 2, 3, 4). However, in many cases, environmental monitoring is not very good in communities near Superfund sites.
This is yet another reason why monitoring needs to be improved, toxic cleanup must be sped up, and why “short term protectiveness” as a temporary goal for many Superfund sites is not good enough; it doesn’t set a clear timeline, it doesn’t necessarily account for the implications of the changing climate, and it continues to shrug off the environmental impacts experienced by the most vulnerable communities.
Photo Credit: Jason Dearen/AP Photo

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