Toxic Chemicals

Al Jazeera Feature: Houston’s Cancer Cluster | Fault Lines

In Houston, Texas, residents of two historically African-American neighborhoods with high rates of certain cancers are seeking answers after toxic waste from a nearby railroad yard contaminated their environment. Some suspect the pollution is the cause of a cancer cluster discovered in their area in 2019. The groundwater beneath more than 100 properties is contaminated with creosote, a chemical mixture classified as a probable carcinogen that was used for nearly 75 years at the railroad yard. But railroad giant Union Pacific, which owns the yard, says local residents could not have been exposed to the contaminant, and claims the creosote has nothing to do with the cancers. The Texas public health agency hasn’t yet decided if they will investigate what could be causing the illnesses. How do communities living alongside polluting industries and toxic waste look for answers and accountability when they get sick? Fault Lines investigates the cancer cluster in east Houston and follows a community’s search for justice.

In 1962 Rachel Carson published her famous book Silent Spring and began the modern environmental movement. Carson wrote poetically about the dangers pesticides pose to nature and called for increased regulation of these chemicals. Today we consider not just how toxicants affect the health of the planet, but how they affect the health of people.

As a result of faulty economic policies and lax environmental and production standards, human exposure to toxicants, or toxic chemicals, is widespread. Industrial sites leave arsenic in the soil. Factories release ozone into the air. Fast food packaging contains PFCs. Waste incinerators emit dioxin. These chemicals cause health problems ranging from asthma attacks to cancer.

In response to tragedies and to improve community health, the U.S. federal government created the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, which regulate toxic chemicals before they enter our air and water and mitigate pollution when it occurs. Tragedies like Love Canal and the dedicated work of activists like Lois Gibbs have led to ongoing programs like Superfund to force corporations and the government to take responsibility for protecting people’s health.

Corrupt industries and government employees have added loopholes and exceptions to these regulations, however. They are willingly and purposefully weakening communities’ primary protection against environmental health crises.

Furthermore, we’re also continuously exposed to numerous toxicants that we haven’t even begun regulating. The Environmental Protection Agency, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Food and Drug Administration have the responsibility to be vigilant and active when it comes to protecting the health of our country. As the oft-referenced precautionary principle states, industries that produce chemicals, either as waste or marketable products, have an obligation to prove these chemicals will do no harm before exposing the public to them.

The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice believes that people have the right to be safe from environmental harm. Current economic and political systems in the United States reinforce environmental inequity and put communities of color and low-income communities at greater risk of health problems due to toxic chemical exposure.

CHEJ’s Director of Science Stephen Lester and our Science and Technical Department work to research the toxicants you are concerned about in order to distribute accessible scientific information to the public. CHEJ empowers communities to make informed decisions about their own health.