By Emily Dao
We constantly hear the narrative that climate change impacts us all. And while that's true, the issue is disproportionately impacting people of color, especially Black, Latino, and Native Americans. And when it comes to environmental justice, we just aren't talking about social equity enough.
A decade ago, Grist reporter Alan Durning wrote on the topic of climate change and race, "It's 2010. Some things have changed; others have not. Racial discrimination has diminished but persists, often in hidden and even subconscious ways."
Even now, seemingly hidden barriers continue to burden marginalized communities with the effects of climate change.
So, even well-intentioned plans to adopt new eco-friendly practices could severely hurt vulnerable groups. The plea for environmental justice deals with ensuring basic human rights. This includes access to clean water, clean air, power, and shelter.
Flint Serves as One of the Most Popular Instances of Denied Environmental Justice.
Perhaps your first time being exposed to environmental racism was when you learned about Flint, Michigan. In fact, University of Michigan researcher Paul Mohai called it "the most egregious example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history."
When residents complained about contaminated water supply, state officials quickly and publicly dismissed citizens' claims. Residents almost immediately noticed a change in their water supply back in April 2014. Flint is a city of nearly 100,000 people. But, the state waited over a year to address the issue, finally doing so in October 2015…a full eighteen months.
Let's look at some numbers. Black Americans made up only 14% of Michigan. However, the most heavily polluted zip code in Michigan is 84% Black. For Flint and their Republican-controlled state government, NYT report John Eligon said it meant the city had "little political power."
A state report by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission verified that racism was a contributing factor in the water crisis. Government inaction led to a major Legionnaire's outbreak from the poisoned water. This disease is a severe form of bacterial pneumonia. Michigan reported at least 90 citizens were sickened and 12 died. However, a PBS FRONTLINE investigation found that 115 people actually died in Flint.
In January, over 30,000 Flint residents have filed lawsuits against city and state regulators for reparations. But, NPR says it's "unclear" if anyone will ever face trial for this injustice.
"The people in Flint, in terms of justice, holding people accountable and compensation…we are batting zero," Flint resident Claire McClinton told NPR.
So, it's no surprise that people often refer to Flint when it comes to environmental racism.
Lacking Social Equity: Underserved Communities Experience More Exposure to Dangerous Air.
Overwhelmingly, Latino and Black Americans live closer to toxic waste facilities, coal plants, or other areas not compliant with federal air pollution regulations. These instances, in turn, are associated with significant respiratory problems among these marginalized groups.
An analysis in California from the Union of Concerned Scientists affirmed this idea. In the study, they found that U.S., Black, Latino, Asian, and low-income communities suffered the most from poor air quality — and impacted Black Americans the most.
They experience 43% more exposure to PM2.5 pollution than White Californians. (Fine particulates from PM2.5 pollution are smaller in width than human air and form from diesel exhaust, smokestacks, construction projects, etc. Exposure to PM2.5 pollution is actually the 6th leading cause of death in the world.) And you'd think that more would be done to fix this as a respiratory virus, COVID-19 ravaged the world. Instead, the EPA stopped enforcing air pollution rules during the virus. This, among other reasons, explains why people of color are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Tragically, those hit hardest by pollution contribute the least. The same study found that California households without a personal vehicle were actually exposed to higher levels of air pollution. This is because these households are usually in urban areas, which are typically surrounded by heavy traffic.
Those living in low-income households already are at increased risk of a lower life expectancy. They're also more likely to contract chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. So, for poor communities, living near polluting facilities only makes them more vulnerable to dangerous health effects.
Low-Income Households, People of Color Are Left in the Dark.
The transition to renewable energy revealed a lack of equity for the poor and people of color. (Minority groups often overrepresent impoverished neighborhoods. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 40% of Americans living in poverty are black. Take in mind, Black Americans make up less than 20% of the U.S. population).
840 million people in the world still suffering from energy poverty. Overwhelmingly in the U.S., those struggling to pay for rising energy costs tend to be low-income Black and Latino Americans.
Given that many underserved communities don't even have reliable power, it makes sense that they're also less likely to have access to clean or energy-efficient technologies.
Time and Time Again, Research Reveals Inequity in Clean Energy.
University of Michigan Professor, Tony Reames found financial inequity in clean energy. His study revealed that upgrading to energy-efficient lightbulbs cost twice the amount in low-income neighborhoods compared to more affluent areas. And, for every dollar, Michigan spent on energy efficiency programs for low-income customers? The state spent $4.34 on high-income customers.
Additionally, in New Orleans, Grist reported that 20% of residents' income went to their energy bills. It's no wonder that the city, which has one of the nation's highest poverty rates, is also one of the least energy-efficient in the U.S.
And unfortunately, extreme rising temperatures due to climate change will only continue threatening power grids. This will result in heightened cases of blackouts. California's series of wildfires last year also hurt low-income households the most.
Last year, the California Department of Social Services reported that almost 51,000 households relying on food assistance lived in areas heavily impacted by planned outages to mitigate wildfires. For some, blackouts can definitely be an inconvenience. But, they can be devastating — and even deadly — to the poor and elderly.
Natural Disasters Disproportionately Impact Poorer Communities.
Natural disasters caused over $80 billion in damages in 2019. While disasters don't discriminate which areas they affect, recovery is much harder for the poor.
In times of despair, people tend to rally together. However, there's not an even dispersion of aid and attention. The Atlantic pointed out that private and public aid often "accrue to the haves more so than the have nots."
Brad Kieserman, VP of Disaster Logistics and Operations at the American Red Cross, discussed this after the Camp Fire wildfire.
"Disasters, for most communities, exacerbate already existing issues, which is why we often see in shelters what we sometimes refer to as the least, the last, and the lost'," he told the Atlantic. "The people who had the least, who were the last to get services, who were already at the end, who were lost beforehand, especially financially."
Environmental Justice a Big Challenge for the Native American Community.
According to The Conversation, 90 years of data show poverty rates climbing by 1% after natural disasters, impacting the poor most. For them, resiliency after devastations might not be possible.
"Our research suggests that the rich may have the resources to move away from areas facing natural disasters, leaving behind a population that is disproportionately poor," it wrote.
Then, when applying for recovery aid, Native Americans struggle most. Extreme heat and droughts harm plants and wildlife. They also create higher risks of wildfires and habitat loss. Since Native Americans depend heavily on natural resources, plants, and animals, it makes them vulnerable to climate change.
Yet, the National Congress of American Indians revealed that tribal citizens only received $3 on average for recovery efforts. Conversely, U.S. citizens received $26. Nelson Andrews Jr., Emergency Management Director for Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe discussed this with High Country News.
"It's basically like you're [Congress] setting us up to fail," he said.
The Importance of Your Vote in Achieving Environmental Justice.
After the Green New Deal was introduced back in 2019, AOC's sweeping proposal helped put climate policy on the map. One reason this outline got so much traction was that it heavily confronted social issues. This emphasis on social justice proved its important role in the climate narrative.
Although the Green New Deal did receive significant backlash over its feasibility, it did reinforce the idea that social justice and climate cannot exist as separate battles. In order for us to make significant progress in the fight against climate change, everyone must reap the benefits of a cleaner world.
The environment is the third most important issue in swing states. However, just focusing on the environment is not enough. When creating these solutions, poor, vulnerable communities must also be taken into consideration. We must demand environmental justice to enact real change.
Now more than ever is the time to use your voice, get loud, and stand up for what you believe is right. Now is the time to vote for our future.
This story originally appeared in The Rising, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, or Assembly Bill 2762, targets 24 toxic chemicals including mercury and formaldehyde that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption and other negative health impacts, Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported. While these ingredients have been barred from cosmetics and personal care products in the EU, they are not regulated in the U.S. on the national level.
"Every day, Californians are exposed to hazardous chemicals hiding in their cosmetics and personal care products. Children, communities of color and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to these ingredients, which are not actively regulated by the federal government," Newsom said in a press release. "California is leading the nation by banning toxic ingredients from our cosmetics. This legislation will save lives and keep Californians and our environment safe."
The bill was introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi and will go into effect in 2025, The Associated Press reported.
"The science is clear on the harmful nature of these chemicals and AB 2762 will provide Californians with the same consumer protections already provided in the European Union," Muratsuchi said in the press release.
Cosmetics regulations have not been significantly updated in the U.S. since 1938. Currently, the makers of beauty products do not have to register their products with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), supply the government with an ingredients list, follow safe manufacturing standards or report safety records and any adverse health impacts.
This lack of regulation is an issue of health and environmental justice, supporters of the California bill pointed out.
"Some of the most toxic ingredients are being aggressively marketed to Black women," Black Women for Wellness policy director Nourbese Flint told EWG. "Levels of formaldehyde that could be used to embalm a body are being used in hair straighteners, and Black women who dye their hair are 60 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. That's why we demand safe cosmetics now. This law means we can finally protect women from the toxic exposures they currently face on every trip to the salon."
The law will also protect salon workers, who are 47 times more likely to develop fragrance skin allergies than people in other professions, the California government pointed out.
Also on Wednesday, Newsom signed Senate Bill 312, which mandates that cosmetics makers report any harmful fragrances or flavors to the California Department of Public Health Safe Cosmetics Program.
"I thank Governor Newsom for signing SB 312 which will ensure that consumers in California know what ingredients are in the beauty and personal care products they bring home to their families and use on their bodies," Democratic State Senator Connie Leyva, who introduced the bill, said in the press release. "This first-in-the-nation legislation empowers consumers and underscores the belief that no toxic ingredients should be kept secret."
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CBD oil is one dietary supplement where "organic" labels are very important to consumers. Learn about the importance of organic hemp oil, why it's better for the environment, and which CBD companies actually make trustworthy products with sustainable farming processes. Use our curated list to find the best organic CBD oil that's better for you and the environment.
What is Organic CBD Oil?
CBD stands for cannabidiol, and it's one of the hundreds of cannabinoids found within cannabis sativa plants. This plant compound is believed to have many potential health and wellness benefits, including support for anxiety, stress, sleep, and chronic pain.
Since CBD is extracted from industrial hemp, it contains only trace amounts of THC (the psychoactive component in cannabis plants). Instead, the effects of CBD are much more subtle and promote a general sense of calm and relaxation in most users.
The most important (and prominent) certification for organic products comes from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). What exactly does this certification entail? Essentially, a label indicating that a product is "USDA Organic" or "Certified Organic" means that at least 95% of the ingredients are obtained from organic sources.
For hemp to be considered organic by the USDA, it must be grown without the use of industrial solvents, irradiation, genetic engineering (GMOs), synthetic pesticides, or chemical fertilizer. Instead, farmers rely on natural substances and mechanical, physical, or biologically based farming techniques to cultivate healthy and organic crops.
Choosing an organic CBD oil without additives is important because it indicates that a product is both safe to use and better for the environment. CBD extracted from an organic hemp plant is more likely to be free from pesticides, heavy metals, and other harmful toxins. This allows you to enjoy the benefits of the plant extract without worrying about any additional and unwanted compounds. Organic CBD is also a better choice for the environment, as it is grown using more sustainable farming practices that help preserve and protect land and water resources.
Our Top Organic CBD Oils
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Best Overall Organic - Spruce Lab Grade CBD Oil
- Best Organic Full Spectrum - Charlotte's Web Original Formula
- Best USDA Organic - Cornbread Hemp Whole Flower CBD Oil
- Best Organic Flavor - R+R Medicinals Fresh Mint CBD Tincture
- Best Organic Broad Spectrum - Joy Organics CBD Oil
- Best Organic CBD for Stress - Plant People Drops+ Mind + Body
- Best Organic CBD for Sleep - NuLeaf Naturals CBD Oil
- Best Organic Satisfaction Guarantee - CBDistillery Relief + Relax
How We Chose the Best Organic CBD Oils
To create our list of the best organic CBD oil, we compared brands and products on a number of different criteria. These included:
- Hemp Source - We chose brands that use organic hemp grown in the U.S. and that follow natural and organic farming practices.
- Natural Ingredients - Each of the products on our list were examined to see if they used organic and natural ingredients for things like flavoring and carrier oils.
- Strengths - We looked for organic CBD oils that provide different concentrations of CBD to choose from, depending on your needs.
- Lab Testing - All of the CBD products we recommend must undergo independent third-party lab testing and provide access to those results.
- Certifications - In addition to USDA organic certification, we also looked for seals from the U.S. Hemp Authority, U.S. Hemp Roundtable, B-Corp, and other industry standards.
A note about USDA organic certification: before the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, no hemp-derived products could be dubbed as "certified organic" as the hemp plant and its extracts were still categorized as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.
Due to the fact that industrial hemp has only recently become an agricultural crop, very few CBD oils are USDA certified organic. Many CBD products contain hemp extracts from plants that were grown organically, but may not be federally certified yet. Where necessary, we researched each brand's growing and harvesting practices to determine if they follow organic and natural cultivation methods, even if they are not fully certified by the USDA.
8 Best Organic CBD Oils of 2021
Best Overall: Spruce Lab Grade CBD Oil
Spruce CBD is well-known for its potent full spectrum CBD oils that provide many of the additional beneficial phytocannabinoids found in hemp. This brand works with two family-owned, sustainably focused farms in the USA (one located in Kentucky and one in North Carolina) to create its organic, small product batches. This tincture contains 750mg of CBD, but they also offer a max potency Spruce CBD oil that contains 2400mg of full-spectrum CBD extract.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 25 mg CBD per serving
- Source - North Carolina and Kentucky
Best Full Spectrum: Charlotte's Web Original Formula
One of the most well-known brands in the CBD landscape, Charlotte's Web has been growing sustainable hemp plants for years. The company is currently in the process of achieving USDA Organic Certification, but it already practices organic and sustainable cultivation techniques to enhance the overall health of the soil and the hemp plants themselves, which creates some of the highest quality CBD extracts.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 50 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Colorado
Why buy: Charlotte's Web offers CBD oils in a range of different concentration options, and some even come in a few flavors like chocolate mint, orange blossom, and lemon twist. We love Charlotte's Web Original Original Formula because it is made with U.S. Hemp Authority Certified CBD and organic extra virgin olive oil.
Best USDA Organic: Cornbread Hemp Whole Flower CBD Oil
Cornbread Hemp Whole Flower CBD Oil uses USDA organic hemp grown on Kentucky farms and USDA organic MCT coconut oil. What makes Cornbread Hemp unique is that they only use hemp flower to create their CBD extract, resulting in a cleaner, purer product. Vegan and non-GMO, this organic CBD oil provides all of the secondary cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids of hemp without any preservatives, flavorings, seeds, or stems.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 50 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Kentucky
Why buy: We love Cornbread Hemp Whole Flower CBD oil because it is made using USDA certified organic hemp flowers to create a top-notch CBD oil packed with beneficial plant compounds. Use this oil in the evening to relax and to help you fall asleep.
Best Organic Flavor: R+R Medicinals Fresh Mint CBD Tincture
R+R Medicinals Organic Full Spectrum Hemp Extract comes in a great introductory strength for new CBD users and a delicious fresh mint flavor. Made with organic full spectrum hemp extract, organic MCT coconut oil, and organic mint flavoring, this CBD oil is USDA certified organic for a product you can trust. It also contains over 2 mg of the secondary cannabinoids, like CBC, CBG, THC, CBN, and CBDv, that can help provide the fullest effect.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 16.67 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Colorado
Best Organic Broad Spectrum: Joy Organics CBD Oil
For those concerned about THC, Joy Organics CBD oil makes a great option. This formula is USDA certified organic and is made with organic broad spectrum hemp extract and organic olive oil for a natural, THC-free product. It's also certified by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable and third-party lab tested for purity. If you prefer, you can also find Joy Organics CBD Oil in several additional flavors, including Tranquil Mint, Summer Lemon, and Orange Bliss.
- CBD - Broad Spectrum
- Strength - 30 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Colorado
Best Organic CBD for Stress: Plant People Drops+ Mind + Body
Plant People Drops+ Mind + Body CBD oil offers an organic, natural supplement that could help support your body's response to stress and inflammation. USDA certified organic, non-GMO, vegan, and gluten-free, this CBD oil is also doctor-formulated using 100% organic hemp grown in Colorado. It can provide 21 mg of cannabinoids like CBD, CBL, and CBG per serving. Plus, Plant People is a certified B-corp and certified Climate Neutral as they plant a tree for every sale.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 21 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Colorado
Why buy: We love Plant People Drops+ Mind + Body formula because it provides a doctor-formulated and USDA organic way to help you manage stress and inflammation while promoting overall wellness. We especially like that the brand is Climate Neutral certified, making this organic CBD oil good for you and the earth.
Best Organic CBD for Sleep: NuLeaf Naturals CBD Oil
NuLeaf Naturals sources its CBD extract from organic hemp plants grown on licensed farms in Colorado. Their CBD oils contain only two ingredients: USDA certified organic hemp seed oil and full spectrum hemp extract. NuLeaf Naturals uses the same proprietary CBD oil formula for all of its products, so you get the same CBD potency in every tincture (30 mg per mL), but can purchase different bottle sizes depending on your needs.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 30 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Colorado
Why buy: We love NuLeaf Naturals CBD oil because of its simplicity. With only two ingredients and one consistent strength, this oil makes it easy to know exactly what is in it and how much CBD you will get with each serving. Take NuLeaf Naturals CBD oil in the evenings to relax and enjoy a full night's sleep.
Best Organic Satisfaction Guarantee: CBDistillery Relief + Relax
All CBDistillery products use non-GMO and pesticide-free industrial hemp that's grown using natural farming practices on Colorado farms. Their hemp oils are some of the most affordable CBD products on the market, yet they still maintain a high standard of quality. CBDistillery has a wide variety of CBD potencies across its product line. We also love that they offer a 60 day money back guarantee so that you can try their CBD oil risk free.
- CBD - Full Spectrum
- Strength - 33 mg CBD per serving
- Source - Colorado
Why buy: We recommend CBDistillery Relief + Relax CBD oil as a great way to start your day and promote a sense of calm and wellness throughout. The brand is certified by the U.S. Hemp Authority, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, and the National Hemp Association for their natural, reliable CBD extracts.
The Research on Organic Hemp Oil
What does the science say about organic CBD oil? There is evidence that CBD can help for certain conditions, specifically things like anxiety, sleeplessness, and pain. In fact, CBD taken for anxiety may have fewer side effects than certain prescription anxiety medications. However, as hemp and CBD remain unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, it is vitally important to do your research and choose high-quality and safe products.
Using organic CBD oil is an easy way to help ensure that you can enjoy the health and wellness benefits of CBD while avoiding any potential toxins or synthetic chemicals.
Hemp is a unique plant, not only for its rich cannabinoid content, but because it is a bioaccumulator, and has the ability to absorb a wide variety of components in the soil. This trait means that hemp can help the environment through the remediation of green spaces, but it poses great risks when it comes to the creation of CBD products derived from hemp.
Because hemp has a high capacity for compound uptake, this means that the plants can retain harmful chemicals like pesticides, heavy metals, and other residual solvents. This is especially true when it comes to synthetic chemicals that are more toxic to humans, and difficult to remove once they have been absorbed by the hemp plant.
Organic farming practices help reduce the risk of hemp crops absorbing harsh chemicals that may later end up in CBD oil after extraction. When you're taking CBD as a wellness supplement to help alleviate your symptoms or improve your overall well-being, the last thing you want is to ingest compounds that might negatively outweigh the benefits of CBD. This is an important reason to look for third party lab test results when shopping for CBD products since these certificates of analysis can show the full cannabinoid and terpene profile of a hemp extract, as well as test results that search for the presence of any residual solvents. If you choose a non-organic CBD oil, you will need to rely even more on the independent lab test results to make sure the product is safe.
In addition to creating a better end product, organic farming practices are also better for the environment. Sustainable and organic farming methods may reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. The use of natural pest deterrents as opposed to chemical pesticides is also better for nearby animal populations and ecosystems.
How to Choose CBD Oil for You
When shopping for an organic CBD oil, you can look for certain key ingredients and certifications to find the best options. Here are some tips on how to compare and choose the right organic CBD oil.
What to Look For
Start by looking for the following pieces of information when considering any CBD product:
Make sure you know if the product uses full spectrum, broad spectrum, or CBD isolate hemp extract. Full spectrum CBD contains all of the natural phytocannabinoids, terpenes, and fatty acids found in the hemp plant, including THC. This may produce a fuller result through the entourage effect. However, if you are concerned about THC, or are subject to a drug test, broad spectrum and CBD isolate products offer a great alternative.
Always check to see how much CBD the product contains. This is measured in milligrams per container and milligrams per serving. A single serving for CBD oil is typically 1 mL, and most brands offer recommendations for measuring and dosages.
The source of the hemp used to extract CBD is vitally important. We recommend choosing brands that use organic and naturally-grown hemp raised in the U.S.A. for safety standards. This is the quickest way to ensure that the CBD itself is pure and free from pesticides or other harmful compounds.
We only recommend CBD oils and products that are subject to independent third-party lab testing. This is a crucial step that verifies both the safety and purity of the oil as well as the potency of the CBD per serving. Look for brands that give you easy access to the lab test results for every product they sell.
How to Read Labels
Here are the primary things to look for when reading the label on a CBD oil or product:
- Type of CBD - The label should clearly state whether the product contains full spectrum, broad spectrum, or CBD isolate hemp extract. If it is broad spectrum or isolate, look for a mark that tells you it is "THC-free."
- Certifications - Certain brands will include seals of approval to show that their product is USDA-certified organic, non-GMO, made in the U.S.A., or U.S. Hemp Authority certified.
- Other Ingredients - Check the ingredients list for anything in the product besides the CBD extract. This typically includes a carrier oil, like MCT or hemp seed oil, but can also include flavorings or botanicals. Make sure they are all-natural and that you are not allergic to any of them.
- Test Results - Most brands include a QR code on the packaging or the label of their CBD product that you can scan to view the third-party test results. This is a key way to know if a brand is trustworthy and whether their CBD is safe to use.
How to Use
Organic CBD oil is used just like any other CBD oil tincture, and is primarily ingested using a dropper to measure out the correct dose. Many brands recommend that you take the CBD oil sublingually by placing the CBD tincture under your tongue for 30 seconds or so before swallowing to aid in absorption. You can also add CBD to food and beverages, though some argue that this lessens the effect.
Some of the most common wellness advantages that people seek from organic CBD include:
- Chronic pain relief
- Anti-anxiety effects
- Better sleep
- Improvements in mood
- Internal balance and regulation
If you take organic CBD for help with sleep, take the recommended amount about an hour before bed. If you are taking it for anxiety, you can take one dose in the morning and another in the evening to help promote a sense of calm throughout the day. As with all CBD products, we recommend that you start with a lower dose and gradually increase it to achieve the desired effects rather than starting with a high dose.
Safety and Side Effects
CBD, while generally well-tolerated and safe for adults, can produce side effects in certain people. These are generally very mild, but can include things like nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and irritability. CBD may also interact with certain prescription drugs, especially blood thinners and statins. If you take a prescription medication, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting CBD.
CBD has the potential to help with a number of health and wellness concerns, especially anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. To make sure that you choose the right option, go with the best organic CBD oil without additives from a brand you trust. Use our list to help you get started and find the natural relief you need.
Melena Gurganus is the Reviews Editor at EcoWatch. She is passionate health and wellness and her writing aims to help others find products they can trust. Her work has been featured in publications such as Health, Shape, Huffington Post, Cannabis Business Times, and Bustle.
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, “Thirsting for Solutions," here.
Tom Kennedy learned about the long-term contamination of his family's drinking water about two months after he was told that his breast cancer had metastasized to his brain and was terminal.
The troubles tainting his tap: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a broad category of chemicals invented in the mid-1900s to add desirable properties such as stain-proofing and anti-sticking to shoes, cookware and other everyday objects. Manufacturers in Fayetteville, North Carolina had been discharging them into the Cape Fear River — a regional drinking water source — for decades.
"I was furious," says Kennedy, who lives in nearby Wilmington. "I made the connection pretty quickly that PFAS likely contributed to my condition. Although it's nothing that I can prove."
The double whammy of bad news came more than three years ago. Kennedy, who has outlived his prognosis, is now an active advocate for stiffer regulation of PFAS.
"PFAS is everywhere," he says. "It's really hard to get any change."
Indeed, various forms of PFAS are still used in a spectrum of industrial and consumer products — from nonstick frying pans and stain-resistant carpets to food wrappers and firefighting foam — and have become ubiquitous. The compounds enter the environment anywhere they are made, spilled, discharged or used. Rain can flush them into surface sources of drinking water such as lakes, or PFAS may gradually migrate through the soil to reach the groundwater — another key source of public water systems and private wells.
For the same reasons the chemicals are prized by manufacturers — they resist heat, oil and water — PFAS also persist in the soil, the water and our bodies.
More than 200 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-contaminated water, research suggests. As studies continue to link exposures to a lengthening list of potential health consequences — including links to Covid-19 susceptibility — scientists and advocates are calling for urgent action from both regulators and industry to curtail PFAS use and to take steps to ensure the compounds already in the environment stay out of drinking water.
Thousands of Chemicals
PFAS dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when Dupont and Manhattan Project scientists each accidentally discovered the compounds. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now 3M, soon began manufacturing PFAS as a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products.
Thousands of different PFAS chemicals emerged over the following decades, including the two most-studied versions: PFOS and PFOA. Oral-B began using PFAS in dental floss. Gore-Tex used it to make waterproof fabrics. Hush Puppies used it waterproof leather for shoes. And DuPont, along with its spin-off company Chemours, used the compounds to make its popular Teflon coatings.
Science suggests links between PFAS exposure and a range of health consequences, including possible increased risks of cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, kidney disease, low birth-weight babies, immune suppression, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
"PFAS really seem to interact with the full range of biological functions in our body," says David Andrews, a senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on this reporting project). "Even at the levels that the average person has in this country, these chemicals are likely having an impact."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even issued a warning that exposure to high levels of PFAS might raise the risk of infection with Covid-19 and noted evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS could lower vaccine efficacy. A PFAS known as PFBA is raising particular concern with respect to the global pandemic. Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and colleagues recently found a positive correlation between severity of Covid-19 symptoms and the presence of PFBA in individuals' blood, according to their non-peer-reviewed preprint paper published in October.
"There is a whole range of potential adverse effects. To me, the interference with the immune system is the most important," Grandjean says. "According to our data, the immune system is affected at the lowest exposure levels."
Once PFAS gets into the environment, the compounds are likely to stick around a long time because they are not easily broken down by sunlight or other natural processes.
Legacy and ongoing PFAS contamination is present across the U.S., especially at or near sites associated with fire training, industry, landfills and wastewater treatment. Near Parkersburg, West Virginia, PFAS seeped into drinking water supplies from a Dupont plant. In Decatur, Alabama, a 3M manufacturing facility is suspected of discharging PFAS, polluting residents' drinking water. In Hyannis, Massachusetts, firefighting foam from a firefighter training academy is the likely source of well-water contamination, according to the state. Use of PFAS-containing materials such as firefighting foam at hundreds of military sites around the country, including one on Whidbey Island in Washington State, has also contaminated many drinking water supplies.
"It works great for fires. It's just that it's toxic," says Donald (Matt) Reeves, an associate professor of hydrogeology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who studies how PFAS moves around, and sticks around, in the environment.
It can be a near-endless loop, Reeves explains. Industry might discharge the compounds into a waste stream that ends up at a wastewater treatment plant. If that facility is not outfitted with filters that can trap PFAS, the chemicals may go directly into a drinking water source. Or a wastewater treatment facility might produce PFAS-laced sludge that is applied to land or put into a landfill. Either way, PFAS could leach out and find its way back in a wastewater treatment plant, repeating the cycle. The compounds can be released into the air as well, resulting in some cases in PFAS getting deposited on land where it can seep back into drinking water supplies.
His research in Michigan, he says, echoes a broader trend across the U.S.: "The more you test, the more you find."
In fact, a study by scientists from EWG, published in October 2020, used state testing data to estimate that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water at concentrations of 1 part per trillion (ppt) or higher. That is the recommended safe limit, according to some scientists and health advocates, and is equivalent to one drop in 500,000 barrels of water.
"This really highlights the extent that these contaminants are in the drinking water across the country," says EWG's Andrews, who co-authored the paper. "And, in some ways, it's not a huge surprise. It's nearly impossible to escape contamination of drinking water." He references research from the CDC that found the chemicals in the blood of 98% of Americans surveyed.
U.S. chemical makers have voluntarily phased out their use and emission of PFOS and PFOA, and industry efforts are underway to reduce ongoing contamination and clean up past contamination — even if the companies do not always agree with scientists on the associated health risks.
"The weight of scientific evidence from decades of research does not show that PFOS or PFOA causes harm in people at current or historical levels," states Sean Lynch, a spokesperson for 3M. Still, he notes that his company has invested more than US$200 million globally to clean up the compounds: "As our scientific and technological capabilities advance, we will continue to invest in cutting-edge cleanup and control technology and work with communities to identify where this technology can make a difference."
Thom Sueta, a company spokesperson for Chemours, notes similar efforts to address historic and current emissions and discharges. The company's Fayetteville plant has dumped large quantities of the PFAS compound GenX, contaminating the drinking water used by Kennedy and some 250,000 of his neighbors.
"We continue to decrease PFAS loading to the Cape Fear River and began operation this fall of a capture and treatment system of a significant groundwater source at the site," Sueta stated in an email.
A big part of the challenge is that PFAS is considered an emerging contaminant and is, therefore, not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But most of the ongoing PFOS and PFOA contamination appear to come from previous uses cycling back into the environment and into people, notes Andrews.
A big part of the challenge is that PFAS is considered an emerging contaminant and is, therefore, not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2016, the EPA set a non-binding health advisory limit of 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The agency proposed developing federal regulations for the contaminants in February 2020 and is currently reviewing comments with plans to issue a final decision this winter.
Several U.S. states have set drinking water limits for PFAS, including California, Minnesota and New York. Michigan's regulations, which cover seven different PFAS compounds, are some of the most stringent. Western Michigan University's Reeves says that the 2014 lead contamination crisis in Flint elevated the state's focus on safe drinking water.
Still, the inconsistency across the country has created confusion. "The regulation of PFAS remains varied. States are all having different ideas, and that's not necessarily a good thing," says David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "People are uncertain what to do."
The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, or ITRC, a coalition of states that promotes the use of novel technologies and processes for environmental remediation, is working to pull together evidence-based recommendations for PFAS regulation in the absence of federal action.
University of Southern Denmark and Harvard professor Grandjean suggests a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is probably about 1 ppt or below. The European Union's latest risk assessment, which Grandjean says corresponds to a recommended limit of about 2 ppt for four common PFAS compounds, is "probably close," he says. "It's not a precautionary limit, but it's certainly a lot closer than EPA's."
GenX, introduced in 2009 by DuPont to replace PFOA, is among a newer generation of short-chain PFAS designed to have fewer carbon molecules than the original long-chain PFAS. These were initially believed to be less toxic and more quickly excreted from the body. But some evidence is proving otherwise: Studies suggest that these relatives may pose many of the same risks as their predecessors.
"The family of PFAS chemicals being used in commerce is a lot broader than the small set of compounds that the EPA is considering regulating," says Sedlak. "Up until now, the focus of discussion related to regulation has centered around PFOS and PFOA with some discussion of GenX. But the deeper we dig, the more we see lots and lots of PFAS out there."
Andrews notes that the ongoing pattern of replacing one toxic chemical with another is a problem that the federal government urgently needs to fix. "This entire family of chemicals shares many of the same characteristics," he says.
"When these chemicals stop being produced, especially in significant volumes across the country, the levels go down," Andrews says, referring to a corresponding drop in PFOS and PFOA concentrations in Americans' blood after the phaseout of the compounds. "But it raises that concern of what's coming next? Or what are we really being exposed to that we're not testing for?"
Andrews and his co-author Olga Naidenko, also a scientist with EWG, further urge governments to consider one relatively low-hanging fruit: non-essential uses of PFAS. "Even if somebody would make an argument that, for serious fires, we need to use the best foam, I think we can all agree that there's no reason to spray PFAS just to train," says Naidenko. "You can spray water."
Environmental health advocates express hope that 2021 will bring greater progress on PFAS regulation. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to set enforceable limits for PFAS in drinking water and to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance — which would accelerate the cleanup of contaminated sites under the EPA's Superfund program.
Breaking the Chain
Meanwhile, the million-dollar (or realistically much, much more) question is: How do we get PFAS out of drinking water? The bond between carbon and fluorine atoms is one of the strongest in nature. As a result, PFAS degrades extremely slowly in nature. "People have called them 'forever chemicals' for good reason," says Sedlak. "These carbon-fluorine bonds want to stay put."
Because PFAS resists degradation, filtration is the primary strategy for removing it from drinking water. Granulated activated carbon filters can absorb PFAS and other contaminants, although they must be replaced when all of the available surface area becomes occupied by chemicals. The filters also tend to work less well for short-chain compared to long-chain PFAS. Another removal method is the use of ion exchange resins, which can attract and hold negatively charged contaminants such as PFAS. Perhaps the most effective technology to date is reverse osmosis. This approach can filter out a wide range PFAS. At the same time, it carries a high price tag, notes Heather Stapleton, a professor of environmental science and policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Stapleton has researched the various filters and finds that all of them can work well. She installed an at-home filter after discovering PFAS in her own drinking water. But that cost can be a significant barrier for many people, she notes, making it an "environmental justice issue."
The diversity of PFAS compounds also poses a challenge. Community water systems may spend significant resources to install systems for water treatment only to find that while the method might work well at removing one set of PFAS, it can fail to filter another set, says Naidenko.
Scientists are investigating further chemical and biological treatment methods. Sedlak is among researchers looking into ways to treat PFAS while it is still in the ground, such as via in situ oxidation coupled with microbes to break down chemicals.
"What we know for sure is we were exposed. What we don't know is what sort of lasting health impact that has on us as a community" – Emily DonovanJoel Ducoste, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, laments that currently employed treatment processes still fall short of removing PFAS and providing safe drinking water to Americans. "This has been problematic in our state and is becoming a national problem," he says.
More definitive science surrounding PFAS — optimal treatment methods, truly safe alternatives and potential health effects — can't come soon enough for those dealing daily with legacy PFAS contamination in Wilmington.
"What we know for sure is we were exposed. What we don't know is what sort of lasting health impact that has on us as a community," says Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, a grassroots group advocating for clean water in the region. Part of their effort, she says, is seeking better medical monitoring of people exposed to PFAS.
Due to the long latency between exposure and disease — often decades — it is difficult to link any PFAS with specific cancers. Kennedy notes no history of breast cancer in his family and no genetic predisposition to the disease. "Those factors made me believe even more that it was PFAS responsible for this," he says.
"It seems like that's not the right way to test chemical safety — the big underlying concern here — to expose the population widely. And yet, that seems to be what we're doing now," says Andrews.
Reposted with permission from Ensia.
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By Isabella Garcia
September in Portland, Oregon, usually brings a slight chill to the air and an orange tinge to the leaves. This year, it brought smoke so thick it burned your throat and made your eyes strain to see more than 20 feet in front of you.
As historic wildfires burned more than 1 million acres and displaced more than 40,000 people in Oregon, photos of the red haze cloaking the Pacific Northwest were spotlighted on national newscasts and ogled on social media. Portland's air quality was the worst in the world for several days, peaking at an Air Quality Index of 486 on Sept. 13. In comparison, the mean AQI in September in Beijing, known for its smoggy skies, was 77. Just a year before, in September 2019, Portland enjoyed an average AQI more typical for the city: 22.
The hazardous air of the 2020 fires brought a new awareness of air quality issues in areas that don't normally have to think about them. It prompted fresh conversations about climate change, too: A Multnomah County news release called the wildfires a "full-on disaster siren that climate change is fully here."
But when the rain finally came on Sept. 19 and cleared the air, Portlanders rejoiced in the ability to breathe deeply again. The climate conversation and talk of air quality slowly but surely fell out of the news cycle, replaced with the election and the pandemic.
But what about the communities whose air is filled with dangerous emissions every day without the drama of an apocalyptic glow? What about the people who don't get the reprieve of a breath of fresh air? Poor air quality can be seen in metro areas across the U.S., but the distribution of that burden overwhelmingly falls on communities of color.
Communities in Texas and Michigan are home to some of the most polluted air in the country, but they are also home to groups that are fiercely fighting for — and making — change.
Houston is known as the energy capital of America, but that title comes with industrial refineries and chemical plants that release toxic emissions into the air. Having grown up in East Houston, near smokestacks and petrochemical plants, Bryan Parras knows this particular toxic air well. He now works for the Sierra Club as a healthy communities organizer and environmental justice advocate. His job is to identify local issues and leverage Sierra Club resources to address them most effectively.
"In some ways you're like a triage doctor, stopping the bleeding and dressing wounds," Parras explains. "In that process, you learn about the policy decisions that have led to things to begin with. You begin to understand the dynamics that people are dealing with, and you get a deeper grasp of the intersections of housing, environment, immigration status, and all these things."
Those intersections are clear in an ongoing case against Valero Energy, a midsize oil refinery that produces 235,000 barrels of oil and petroleum products per day in Houston's Manchester neighborhood. Valero applied for a permit to emit poisonous hydrogen cyanide in its refining process in March 2018. To fight back, Manchester community representatives are seeking party status during the permit hearings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. According to the CDC, exposure to this chemical asphyxiant interferes with nearly every organ in the body, especially the brain, heart, and lungs, and can be fatal in high concentrations.
The toxin is better known in other contexts. Hydrogen cyanide has been used for lethal injection and is the primary component of Zyklon B, the gas used for mass murder in Nazi WWII gas chambers. Parras says Valero has long been emitting hydrogen cyanide into the air in the Manchester community, but the amount is unclear because the emission was only discovered, or revealed, after a change in EPA requirements during the Obama administration.
The permit request is for 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide per year. To put that number in context, community leaders and elected officials in Denver were appalled when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment imposed a new limit that allowed nearly 13 tons of hydrogen cyanide to be emitted in 2018.
The permit request in Houston caught the attention of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), an organization aiming to provide Texas communities with environmental and legislative expertise to advocate for environmental justice. The group's co-directors, Juan and Ana Parras, founded the group in 1995. Bryan Parras is their son and a member of the t.e.j.a.s. board of directors.
"[Valero] were releasing without a permit for over 10 years," Ana says. "These people are just being dumped upon."
Houstonians Can't Breathe
Manchester is one of Houston's oldest neighborhoods. It is surrounded on three sides by a chemical plant, synthetic rubber plant, oil refineries, and a car-crushing facility, all of which belly up to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest sea ports in the world. The fourth side is a train yard.
A 2019 study commissioned by Air Alliance Houston, an environmental advocacy organization, found that the city's polluting facilities are routinely clustered in and around communities where most of the residents are people of color, or where more than 30% of households are considered low-income. Manchester qualifies as both. As of 2015, 82% of Manchester residents are Hispanic, 14% are Black, and 3% are White. Some 41% of residents make $25,000 or less per year.
The Valero Energy plant is just two blocks from nearby residential homes — or "fence line communities" as Ana and Juan Parras describe them. A 2016 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 90.2% of the Manchester population lives within 1 mile of at least one regulated industrial facility. The EPA estimates that each year, these types of facilities have about 150 catastrophic releases, which can be fires, explosions, or emissions that pose immediate and significant danger to people and the environment.
The same study also found the Manchester neighborhood's respiratory hazard index to be 2.56. That far exceeds the EPA's acceptable level, which is less than 1.0. In comparison, Portland, Oregon, has an average respiratory hazard index of 0.57.
T.e.j.a.s and two other community representatives have received standing in the administrative hearings for the Valero permit moving forward. But Ana Parras anticipates the case lasting well into 2021, and all the while, Valero continues to emit hydrogen cyanide unrestricted.
Pushing Back Against Discrimination
On a faster track is the Title VI language justice case t.e.j.a.s. filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal assistance. Many of the notifications for the community hearings for the Valero case were in English only, even though 70% of Manchester residents speak Spanish at home. Also, because there weren't adequate translators, Spanish-speaking parents would bring their bilingual children — some as young as 7 years old — to the hearings to translate for them.
In this case, t.e.j.a.s. is asking that all notifications be translated into languages congruent with the community demographics, not just the first notification as stated under the current rule.
"In an unprecedented two weeks, we had a hearing," Ana says.
The case has the potential to change the national EPA rules, in addition to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rule.
"The system is hard to change," Juan says, but if t.e.j.a.s. and other organizers stop fighting these systemic environmental ills, he says, the fence line communities will suffer even greater losses. "Community is always first."
Environmental Justice Hot Spots
In Michigan, organizers with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition are using scientific research to find and calculate the impact of environmental racism in their state's fence line communities. For years, MEJC members had been showing up to permit hearings for industrial polluters, mobilizing and providing support for the various communities that were at risk. After a while, the coalition realized a flaw in the permitting system.
"We recognized that these permits were not being considered in relationship to each other," says Jamesa Johnson-Greer, the climate justice director at MEJC. "So, when an air permit is considered for nitrous oxide, for example, that's only considered for that one entity, and that's not considering the fact that these polluting facilities might by near other polluting facilities that are also emitting the same nitrous oxide." Those facilities are often concentrated in and around low-income neighborhoods of color.
The coalition commissioned a cumulative impact study by the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. Researchers assigned an environmental justice score for each census tract in the state based on social, demographic, and environmental data.
In 2019, the researchers reported hot spots of environmental injustice — communities around the state experiencing compounding impacts from 11 environmental factors, including the respiratory hazard index, diesel exposure, air toxics cancer risks, nearby hazardous waste facilities and regulated industrial facilities, as well as traffic proximity. Unsurprisingly, those hot spots were disproportionately clustered in communities of color that had higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment (the percent of the population over 25 without a high school diploma) than the statewide average.
The report confirmed some of what MEJC already knew, such as the intense air pollution in southwest Detroit, particularly the 48217 ZIP code, which is surrounded by more than two dozen industrial polluting facilities. The environmental justice scores around Detroit were as high as 87 out of 100. But there were also surprises, according to Johnson-Greer, like the fact that Grand Rapids, Michigan, had the highest EJ score in the state: 93.99. And despite the egregious water issues in Flint, Genesee County, where the city is located, didn't even make the top 10% of census tracts.
"That actually influenced the way we did our work this year," Johnson-Greer says, "recognizing that we needed to go and talk to people in those areas who have been doing work around environmental justice or social justice and see what the issues were on the ground."
By developing relationships with environmental advocates in Grand Rapids, MEJC learned that the town has a long history of logging and paper mills, considered one of the most polluting industries in the world because of the high concentration of chemicals in the wastewater. Johnson-Greer says that recognizing the patterns and similarities across the EJ hot spots throughout the state can help highlight the weaknesses — and, thus, the starting points for equitable environmental transitions — in statewide and national environmental policies.
In particular, she points to the importance of "prioritizing those communities that are most vulnerable and recognizing that those are the communities that we need to start resourcing immediately, because they have probably also been most under-resourced and have also been left behind in past policies."
A Shift in the Collective Consciousness
For Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, putting the most affected communities' needs first means using a diversity of tactics. Air Alliance Houston supports community interests by advocating for long-term legislative solutions, like developing industrial zoning laws in Houston, and by responding as-needed to threats against local communities' air quality, such as monitoring permits for new concrete batch plants so they can alert the nearby residents of their options to fight the permit.
"In advocacy, I would say there is no one size fits all," Nelson says. "It can be proactive; we can work with groups and coalitions to put forth state level legislation to try to prevent concrete batch plants from being placed near neighborhoods. But, on a day-to-day basis, it's more reactive in that we are tracking the permits; we see a permit and then we respond."
With limited time and resources, striking an effective balance of reactive and proactive responses can be a challenge, says Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club. But Parras is inspired by the community he serves, as well as the overall shift in public conversation he's seen around pollution and climate change over the past few years. While affluent White communities are typically untouched by environmental racism, they are now facing the unavoidable sign of climate change, as was the case with Portland in this year's wildfires. That can prompt powerful empathy and is moving the needle toward action on environmental justice.
"Despite all of the problems, you see some real change happening in the collective consciousness," Parras says. "There is a growth, a renaissance of activism and participation in civic life that is really beautiful to see."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Dr. Brian R. Shmaefsky
One year after the Flint Water Crisis I was invited to participate in a water rights session at a conference hosted by the US Human Rights Network in Austin, Texas in 2015. The reason I was at the conference was to promote efforts by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to encourage scientists to shine a light on how science intersects with human rights, in the U.S. as well as in the context of international development. My plan was to sit at an information booth and share my stories about water quality projects I spearheaded in communities in Bangladesh, Colombia, and the Philippines. I did not expect to be thrown into conversations that made me reexamine how scientists use their knowledge as a public good.
The water rights session was titled Water Justice: Effective Advocacy for Our Right to Water and began with forum speakers discussing environmental justice issues related to water availability, cost, and quality in various regions of the U.S. I heard first-hand accounts of the Flint water supply contamination, the prohibitive cost of water in lower-income communities in Boston, and the scarcity of clean drinking water on Arizona's Native American Reservations.
The forum led to an audience roundtable discussion that began with self-introductions by the attendees. I introduced myself as an environmental scientist based in Arizona who was interested in their concerns. Immediately after the introduction I was surprised to be told by several individuals that they distrusted scientists and that we were a contributor to their problems. I shared about my life growing up poor in New York City housing projects dealing with problems similar to theirs, and I was able to gain some credibility by relating to their experiences with my own. At that point the approximately 50 attendees, who were affected by water issues discussed in the forum, felt free to explain how their experiences caused them to distrust scientists.
Several residents from Flint, Michigan shared their anger about the scientists from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality lied to the community about high lead levels in the water. The also felt ignored by scientists from the EPA Region 5 office who should have had more oversight of the water management decision. I am sure this distrust was exacerbated by the 2017 accusations that the Virginia Tech scientists who assisted the community over-exaggerated the harmful effects of water which caused unnecessary panic in the community.
Representatives from the Shiprock New Mexico Chapter of the Navajo Nation discussed how they felt betrayed by EPA Region 6 scientists who failed to recognize contaminated water supplied to the community for use in agriculture and drinking. The Shiprock residents were already critical of the EPA's handling of a 3-million-gallon release of toxic wastewater into a tributary upstream of the Navajo Native land. A group representing a lower-income African American community of Boston voiced that government scientists and social scientists involved in water infrastructure design are unconcerned about the affordability of drinking water and sewage in lower-income areas.
I used what I learned from the stories about the distrust of scientists as a platform to educate colleagues about how scientists can learn to integrate community-based and interdisciplinary considerations into their work on environmental justice and policy issues and created this one-pager as a guide for scientists who wish to do effective environmental justice work. There are three key components:
- Understanding public views and sentiments about science and scientists
- Building trust in communities affected by environmental justice
- Reducing tensions when working on environmental justice issues
Understanding Public Views and Sentiments About Science and Scientists
According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, a random sample of 2,002 adult Americans perceive science as having positive impacts on peoples' lives. Americans also believe that government funding of science is worth the payoff provided by scientific knowledge and technological applications. But unfortunately, the benefits of science are not always equally distributed to all communities.
Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the most prominent environmental justice scholars, points out in his book Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable, and Livable that many scientific developments for reducing pollution and improving health care do not always make their way into areas affected by discriminatory practices or poverty. Populations that are disproportionately affected by environmental injustices are predominantly communities of color, tribal communities, and low-income communities.
Historically, the benefits of science and technology have not been shared equally as is discussed in the 2016 Nature article Is science only for the rich? A 2018 The Atlantic article Trump's EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real discusses that at times science has been used against environmental justice communities. In addition, the "Belmont Report", produced by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, documents a long history of unequal benefits of medical research.
In part due to this history, scientists are not always or immediately trusted or welcome in environmental justice communities. Scientists also have a reputation for 'parachuting' into communities to conduct research and make recommendations for change without ever fully consulting the knowledge and lived experience of the people who live there. Community members want equal access to data, policymakers, and science or technology that can remediate environmental injustice.
Scientists can play a role in conducting research that is community-driven and in using their social capital and access to scientific institutions and policymakers to make community demands and needs heard directly and with the weight of evidence behind it. For example, from 2007 to 2010, I collaborated with a geology colleague to engage indigent people in the Philippines to develop a sustainable integrated waste and water management system based on stakeholder customs and resources. The communities had no access to affordable resources and were suffering the consequences of no management program. Previous efforts by other entities to improve water management in the community proved ineffective due to a disconnect between the plans of the entities and the needs of the stakeholders.
There is also an inclusivity problem in science — it is not yet representative of the diverse world in which we live. The latest statistics on the ethnicity of scientists show that populations subject to environmental injustice make up less than 15 percent of the U.S. Approximately 70 percent of scientists in the U.S. are white and 72 percent of white scientists are male, and most do not come from low-income backgrounds. Science needs the experiences and expertise of people from impacted communities to ask the questions and work on solutions that better serve the needs of those communities. And people need to see themselves, see people like them, in the scientific community to gain trust that the institution of science represents them too. This disparity creates an incongruity between people affected by environmental injustice and the scientific community.
Scientists need to be aware of how they are perceived when working with community, and slowly and deliberately build relationships and trust with environmental justice and fenceline communities.
Dr. Brian Shmaefsky is currently a professor of environmental sciences at Lone Star College – Kingwood, near Houston, Texas. His research interests are environmental physiology and biomonitoring. However, his current professional activities include developing sustainable water quality strategies for less economically developed nations and consulting on environment justice policy.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Julia Mahncke
U.S. President Donald Trump has undone many major pieces of climate policy during his term, walking out on the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming and eliminating numerous Obama-era environmental regulations.
Trump's Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, has promised as part of his presidential campaign to invest $1.7 trillion in a "clean energy revolution and environmental justice" over the next decade. It falls some $14 trillion short of what the progressive U.S. senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, pledged on climate action during the Democratic primaries.
However, climate change doesn't even make the top 10 concerns among registered voters, even as the U.S. faces extreme weather from wildfires to storms, which scientists say are becoming more prevalent thanks to global warming. The issue ranks 11th behind the economy, health care, Supreme Court appointments and the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center published in August.
While climate change doesn't top the voters' agenda, it's still one of the most divisive issues among Trump and Biden supporters. Some 68% of Democratic voters see climate change as high priority compared to 11% of Republicans, found the Pew survey.
But what are the Biden and Trump campaigns promising to do on climate change and the environment — and how does it tally with what voters want?
Biden a Climate Disappointment?
Biden, Barack Obama's former vice president, plans to recommit to the Paris Accord and ensure that the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden has also promised a halt to fossil fuel subsidies, going further than the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the Democrats, which dropped that demand from its platform earlier this month.
Prior to Kamala Harris' announcement as Biden's running mate, the California senator had been vocal in her support for bold climate action. Harris co-sponsored the New Green Deal, calling on Congress to implement a 10-year government-driven mobilization to decarbonize the economy, while also backing job retraining and social and environmental justice.
But some Democratic voters are disappointed with the Biden/Harris ticket, believing Sanders, who dropped out of the Democratic race for president in April, would have been the better candidate.
"I have two kids, so I have to be mindful and hopeful, but I lost a lot of hope since Bernie Sanders didn't get the bid," said Karen Antunes, as she wrapped up a picnic with her kids and little dog in Peninsula Park in Portland Oregon.
That won't stop her voting Democrat though.
"We have to. The Trump thing has got to end," added Antunes. "But I'm not excited."
Most progressive voters like Antunes might prefer to unite behind Biden against Trump's reelection even if they don't feel his commitment to climate change action goes far enough.
"I don't think the differences between Biden and Sanders on the environment — or any other issues — will matter much to Democratic voters compared to the difference between Biden and Trump," said Stephen Ansolabehere, director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University.
Republicans: Economy Trumps Climate Change
Over the last few years, Trump has dismissed climate change as a "hoax," not human-caused, and called environmental activists "perennial prophets of doom."
The U.S. president's 63 bullet-point election agenda, which is divided into categories like "Jobs," "Eradicate COVID-19" and "End our reliance on China," makes no direct mention of climate change or the environment.
Instead, tucked away under the heading "Innovate for the future" toward the bottom of the list, there are two promises: "Continue to Lead the World in Access to the Cleanest Drinking Water and Cleanest Air" and "Partner with Other Nations to Clean Up our Planet's Oceans."
The plan outlines no path to clean water or air.
The lack of climate change mentions in Trump's agenda might please many Republican voters since they are "obviously less supportive of regulations," said Daron Shaw, a professor specializing in voting behavior at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Fox News Poll.
"Democrats are much more willing to take stronger measures," said Shaw, adding that few Republicans support policies such as a significant carbon or fossil fuel tax. "But if you ask Republicans about recycling, if you ask about fuel efficiency standards, they're very supportive of those sorts of smallish behaviors."
Growing Impatience Among Young Republicans
Some younger Republicans are starting to become critical of their party's inattention to climate change. During the recent Republican National Convention, a small group turned to Twitter during the online event, to ask "#WhatAboutClimate"?
Another Pew study from June 2020 found that millennial and Gen Z Republicans, currently aged 18 to 39, are more likely than older GOP voters to think humans have a significant impact on the climate and that the federal government is doing too little to tackle the problem.
That doesn't mean they're ready to switch allegiance to the Democrats, though.
"Being a Republican is very much rooted in my upbringing," said Kiera O'Brien, who founded the group Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends (YCCD). "Conservatism at home in Ketchikan, Alaska, has a focus on community and nature."
O'Brien dislikes the Democrat's "regulatory approach to climate" and is instead lobbying for free market solutions to climate change through YCCD.
Reframing Climate Action
Environmental policies can be a complicated issue when it comes to federal elections and hard to address for presidential candidates. Many regions in the U.S. have unique challenges: from wildfires in California and storms wiping out harvests in Iowa to water pollution in Flint, Michigan.
Harvard's Ansolabehere also pointed out that opposition to climate policies in the past were typically connected to the fear of losing jobs and that prohibiting coal or retooling the auto industry will "adversely affect employment" in places like Kentucky and Michigan.
Daron Shaw added that Republicans typically "try to frame environmental issues as a matter of high taxation and job killing proposals with the hope that they can peel off Democrats."
Biden might be trying to assuage fears that tackling climate change means job losses by framing his plan as an opportunity for employment in new industries and a reinvigorated green manufacturing sector.
But when it comes to the swing states of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio, Trump's climate record and support for jobs in the fossil fuel sector might give him the upper hand. His backing for ethane cracker plants, which take natural gas and converts it into the basis for making plastics, has received a lot of support, said Ansolabehere, especially from local unions.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Eoin Higgins
Over 300 groups on Monday urged Senate leadership to reject a bill currently under consideration that would incentivize communities to sell off their public water supplies to private companies for pennies on the dollar.
"This bill is an egregious handout to giant water corporations which would embolden them to manipulate and fleece struggling communities—particularly communities of color," said Food & Water Action executive director Wenonah Hauter. "The fact that this bill is being touted as an 'environmental justice' measure makes it all the more nefarious."
Food & Water Action led the demand in a letter taking aim at the "Voluntary Water Partnership for Distressed Communities Act," described in the document as "inappropriate, unjust, and unreasonable."
"From California to Montana to New Jersey, we've seen how privatizing water harms communities, whether it's higher bills or dirtier water," Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, said in a statement. "It's simple: water is a basic human right, which means let's keep it in public hands."
The bill was introduced by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and acts as an amendment to the America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2020. Critics charge the legislation induces poor communities to sell off their water rights.
Water in Illinois is overwhelmingly public. Why is Tammy Duckworth sponsoring a bill that aims to change that? https://t.co/1V36Kkd99s— The American Prospect (@The American Prospect)1594249201.0
As the American Prospect's Robert Kuttner explained, doing so would likely spell disaster for affected communities:
Privatized systems are typically less reliable, far more expensive, and prone to corrupt deal-making. The average community with privatized water paid 59% more than those with government supplied water. In New Jersey, which has more private water than most, private systems charged 79% more. In Illinois, they charged 95% more. Private water corporations have also been implicated in environmental disasters. The French multinational, Veolia, issued a report in 2015 certifying that Flint, Michigan's water system met EPA standards, but neglected to mention high lead concentrations.
"We know that Wall Street actors target Black and brown communities in moments of crisis to enrich themselves and Wall Street-backed water companies see opportunity in this moment," Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of letter signatory Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement.
BP-Weeks added that incentivizing water privatization at such a vulnerable moment for poor communities in the country is exactly the wrong move for what the crisis demands.
"As communities across the country search for relief from the ongoing pandemic, it would be short sighted and misguided to pass a bill that encourages the privatization of water systems," said BP-Weeks. "It is our government's job to protect our most vulnerable communities, not put them up for sale."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By John R. Platt
This year has brought us some brutal lessons so far, chief among them the fact that systemic racism drives or amplifies nearly all our societal and environmental ills.
Now is the time to listen to the people affected most by those problems of environmental justice and racism — and the activists working to solve them.
Here's a good place to start: We've gathered 16 essential recent books on environmental racism and related topics from leading journalists and experts. Two of these are hot off the presses and scheduled to hit shelves this month, while the rest were pulled from previous "Revelator Reads" installments. All provide vital insight into the problems that plague people and the planet, while also offering solutions for a more just future.
Since we're still in the middle of a pandemic — another problem made worse by racial injustice — it obviously remains challenging to visit local bookstores and libraries, so these links all go to publishers' sites, where you can order hard copies or e-books. You can also find enough information to order any of these books from local stores, which may offer delivery or curbside pickup.
This list is hardly exhaustive and pulls mostly from books published over the past two years, and it weighs a bit heavily on Indigenous authors and protests like Standing Rock. So please feel free to recommend any insightful books we missed.
The founder of the Greening Youth Foundation provides a critique of the too-white environmental movement and a toolkit for engaging younger participants from African American, Latinx and Native American communities.
The history of Indigenous resistance may offer all of us the strength we need to keep fighting, from the coauthor of "All the Real Indians Died Off" and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.
Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It by Jamie Margolin
An essential book by one of the country's most engaging youth activists. Margolin, a queer Latinx, cofounded Zero Hour and helped energize 2018's record-breaking Youth Climate March. Now she shares her experience and expertise — along with that of other young activists — and offers advice on everything from organizing peaceful protests to protecting your mental health in a time of crisis. Greta Thunberg provides the foreword.
Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger by Julie Sze
As we've seen many times over the years, activists standing up for environmental justice often face violent reprisal. This academic book examines the what Sze calls the "historical and cultural forces and resistance to violence, death, and destruction of lives and bodies" to reveal guideposts for future (and hopefully safer) action.
Climate Change From the Streets by Michael Méndez
Méndez argues that the climate crisis is also a crisis for public health, especially in lower-income communities of color, and that both problems can only be solved by addressing issues of environmental justice. His book — subtitled "How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement" — taps into Méndez's own research into California communities and grassroots activism to show how the problems that plague us can also bring us together — but only if we invite everyone to the table.
Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial edited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra and Sarah Jaquette Ray
More than a dozen top minds come together to examine thoughts and cultural processes otherwise ignored by the environmental movement.
A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington
This book will open your eyes, make you angry, and then point you toward solutions for ending the plague of pollution-related health problems in marginalized communities of color.
Full Spectrum Resistance by Aric McBay
This two-volume series provides a powerful primer for activism on social-justice and environmental issues, using examples from more than 50 resistance movements around the world. The first book discusses how to build movements, while the second examines strategies for change.
Indigenous Environmental Justice edited by Karen Jarratt-Snider and Marianne O. Nielsen
When pollution harms your physical, financial and spiritual health, it's more than an injustice. But that's what happens time and time again in Indian Country. This book addresses situations ranging from Standing Rock to uranium mining on Navajo and Hopi lands through lenses of colonization, sovereignty and — perhaps most importantly — victory.
Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation by Candy J. Cooper with Marc Aronson
We've already seen several bestselling and powerful books address the Flint water crisis, but this is the first one specifically written for young-adult readers. When you consider that kids were among the worst affected by the Flint tragedy, that makes this a story they need to read and understand — so they can grow up and help prevent it from happening to anyone else.
Covering everything from how to stop a new mining project to figuring out how to clean up an abandoned mine, this important book offers activists a primer for taking on all manner of extractive industries that can harm human health and the environment.
One of the world's most notable water-justice activists provides a step-by-step guide to help communities keep themselves from going dry due to the actions of irresponsible companies and governments.
Standing With Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement edited by Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon
An essential volume to understand the history and significance of the famous resistance action, combining everything from essays and interviews to poems and photography.
One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet by Anuradha Rao
This book for pre-teen readers delivers 20 short biographies of activists around the world who are working to save everything from trees to dolphins to people. In the process, it hopes to inspire the next generation of activists — especially those who might not have seen themselves represented in the still all-too-white environmental movement.
A how-to guide for ending racism and injustice in our country's food system, both on farms themselves and in nutrition-starved African American communities. Bonus: The same techniques improve the soil, treat livestock humanely, preserve rare plant varieties and provide benefits for the climate.
Honduran indigenous leader and activist Berta Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015 — one year before she was murdered for her work trying to stop a hydroelectric dam from destroying a sacred river. This powerful book tells the story of her life and death, a tragedy echoed in the murders and assaults committed against hundreds of environmental defenders every year.
John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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The attorney general for Washington, DC filed a lawsuit on Thursday against four of the largest energy companies, claiming that the companies have spent millions upon millions of dollars to deceive customers in about the calamitous effect fossil fuel extraction and emissions is having on the climate crisis, according to The Washington Post.
The suit names ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Chevron as the defendants, and argues that the companies "systematically and intentionally misled consumers in Washington, DC ... about the central role their products play in causing climate change," according to The Hill.
Karl A. Racine, the DC attorney general, said in a news conference on Thursday that the four companies painted a false picture of what effect their products had and therefore violated consumer protection laws.
"For decades, these oil and gas companies spent millions to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of profits," Racine said in a statement, as The Washington Post reported. "OAG filed this suit to end these disinformation campaigns and to hold these companies accountable for their deceptive practices."
New York and Massachusetts have both sued ExxonMobil for fraud related to the climate crisis, though New York lost its case against the energy giant. California and Baltimore have filed similar suits. On Wednesday, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a complaint in state court accusing ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Flint Hills Resources and the American Petroleum Institute of consumer fraud, failure to warn, deceptive trade practices, and fraud and false advertising, as Courthouse News reported.
Ellison's complaint said that Minnesota was already feeling the effects from the climate crisis as droughts, flooding and crop failures have damaged the state's economy. That has all happened while the companies named in the suit invested in public relations campaigns that denied the climate crisis and even promoted increased CO2 as a solution to world hunger, according to Courthouse News.
"Impacts from climate change hurt our low-income residents and communities of color first and worst. The impacts on farmers in our agricultural state are widespread as well," Ellison said in a statement. "Holding these companies accountable for the climate deception they've spread and continue to spread is essential to helping families to afford their lives and live with dignity and respect."
The two suits drew praise from environmental activists and the science community.
In a statement Thursday, Greenpeace USA climate campaign director Janet Redman said, "Climate denial is not a victimless crime. Now, one by one states and local governments are stepping up to hold the perpetrators accountable," as Common Dreams reported. "Just yesterday it was Minnesota Attorney General Ellison standing up to big oil, today it's D.C. Attorney General Racine."
The Union of Concerned Scientists also issued a statement noting that the fossil fuel industry long knew about the devastating impacts of burning fossil fuels, but followed the Big Tobacco playbook and waged a disinformation campaign.
"When scientists, including some employed by ExxonMobil, warned that burning fossil fuels could catastrophically alter the climate, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell funded decades-long disinformation campaigns designed to undermine climate science, while simultaneously unleashing an army of lobbyists to block state and federal policies that sought to limit global warming emissions to protect communities across the country," said Rachel Licker, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in a statement.
"As a result, the nation's capital and communities across the country and world now have to battle worsening floods, heat waves, wildfires and many other avoidable climate impacts," she added.
In the DC suit, Racine specifically mentioned the fossil fuel companies' strategy lifted from Big Tobacco. "The companies not only employed the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition — a fake grassroots citizen group created by Big Tobacco as part of the industry's misinformation campaign — they also funded and promoted some of the same scientists hired by tobacco companies," he said in a statement.
The lawsuit also alleges that the companies have recently exaggerated their investments and commitments to renewable energy.
"Defendants have shifted their advertising strategies to mislead DC consumers into believing that buying Defendants' products supports companies committed to reducing and reversing the effects of climate change," the lawsuit asserts, as The Washington Post reported. "In fact, the opposite is true."
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As protests are taking place across our nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, we want to acknowledge the importance of this protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the years, we've aimed to be sensitive and prioritize stories that highlight the intersection between racial and environmental injustice. From our years of covering the environment, we know that too often marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately affected by environmental crises.
Now seems like a critical time to reshare a selection of these stories from our writers and our media partners. We know that if we want a healthier planet and life, environmental racism needs to be addressed. Here are 15 stories that highlight racial and environmental injustice and are worth reading during this time. There is no environmental justice without racial justice.
Published April 9, 2020, Author Jordan Davidson
Across the country, the novel coronavirus is severely affecting black people at much higher rates than whites, according to data released by several states, as The New York Times reported.
In New York, which has seen the most COVID-19 related deaths, the virus has disproportionately affected both the black and Hispanic population. In New York City, Hispanics make up 29 percent of the population, but 34 percent of the city's COVID-19 deaths, while African Americans are 22 percent of the city's population and 28 percent of the fatalities, according to new statistics from the city and US News and World Report.
Published Nov. 6, 2018, Author Olivia Rosane
When it comes to the EPA's internal culture, EPA union AFGE 3331 President Nate James implied more education was needed about the impacts of racist messages like the ones that have popped up since August.
"We have diversity training but nothing that addresses, for lack of better words, when hateful language is being used it creates a threatening atmosphere, a hostile environment, where employees are concerned about their safety," James told ABC News.
James said that, earlier in the summer, another incident occurred where a note was left on an African American employee's desk reading "BACK TO THE JUNGLE U GO." The union said that EPA management's response to that incident showed "callous disregard and inattentiveness" and "demoralized" the employee.
Published May 7, 2020, Author Ben Knight / Deutsche Welle
Statistically, the increased risk of lead poisoning associated with being black persists even when you correct for all other factors, from poverty to education levels to the presence of smokers in the home, to quality of housing.
"A lot of people had been saying: 'Oh black children are just more at risk because they're more likely to be poor,'" said study co-author Deniz "Dersim" Yeter, an independent academic and undergraduate nursing student in Kansas. "Yeah, poverty's a problem, but it's nothing compared to being a black child in America."
Yeter was "astounded" by the results of their three-year analysis. "I knew it was bad, but I was expecting something like a marginal increase, something statistically significant, but ... not two to six times higher," they told DW. "That is obscene."
Published March 12, 2019, Author Olivia Rosane
The first-of-its-kind study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that black and Hispanic Americans breathe in large amounts of dangerous air pollution that is mainly caused by the actions of non-Hispanic whites.
Even though minorities are contributing less to the overall problem of air pollution, they are affected by it more," study co-author and University of Minnesota engineering professor Jason Hill, who is white, told USA Today. "Is it fair (that) I create more pollution and somebody else is disproportionately affected by it?"
Published April 8, 2020, Author Climate Nexus
An area in Louisiana whose predominantly black and brown residents are hard-hit by health problems from industry overdevelopment is experiencing one of the highest death rates from coronavirus of any county in the United States.
St. John the Baptist parish, which sits along the Gulf Coast region known as Cancer Alley, has seen 30 of its 43,000 residents die of COVID-19 since the outbreak began – a death rate of 68.7 per 100,000 people, compared to New York City's rate of 29.
"We were getting calls almost every hour," parish coroner Christy Montegut told The Guardian. "...They all died in the same way. They got to a hospital, were on a ventilator, but the body just couldn't keep going. They died in spite of full treatment. The virus is overwhelming."
Environmental Negligence vs. Civil Rights: Black and Hispanic Communities Get More Pollution, Fewer Jobs
Published Oct. 2, 2018, Author Olivia Rosane
By the numbers, black Americans hold 10.8 percent of the jobs at industrial facilities, but suffer 17.4 percent of the exposure to air pollution. Hispanics hold 9.8 percent of the jobs, but suffer 15 percent of the pollution exposure. Both populations have less than seven percent of the high-paying jobs offered at industrial sites, U.S. News & World Report reported.
The fossil fuel industry was the worst offender. At petroleum industry and coal-product facilities, blacks and Hispanics suffered 48 percent of the pollution exposure and only received around a fifth of the jobs.
Published July 23, 2019, Author Adrienne Hollis / Union of Concerned Scientists
The extreme heat is almost three additional weeks' worth of extreme heat days for places that are more than 25% African American as opposed to those that are less than 25% African American. The reasons why African American communities are and will continue to experience more extreme heat days are likely complex, but it's probable that the root of the problem can be traced back to centuries of systemic mistreatment of people of color.
Published July 11, 2019, Author Mallika Khanna / Common Dreams
The idea that environmentalism is an "elite" concern is a lie. Those who stand to gain the most from sweeping environmental protections are the marginalized people corporations assume can be put in toxic environments without fear of backlash.
That's the best reason yet to support a Green New Deal, which would not only curb climate change, but also revitalize the U.S. economy, create millions of jobs, and create alternatives to harmful, unsustainable industries like the petrochemical industry in Cancer Alley that have harmed people for years.
That could make poor communities a lot less poor — and a lot more resilient.
Published Nov. 15, 2017, Author David Leestma
The study found oil and natural gas facilities were built or currently exist within a half-mile of more than one million African Americans, exposing these communities to higher risks of cancer due to toxic emissions. "African-Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than Caucasian Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities than the average American," the report said, referring to neighborhoods near to gas and oil facilities.
Counties located in the Gulf Coast Basin are home to the most counties with oil refineries and higher percentages of African Americans. Michigan, Louisiana and Tennessee, the report found, have the highest percentage of African American residents living in oil refinery counties. Texas and Louisiana, both in the Gulf Coast Basin, were home to the largest African American individuals at risk for cancer, with nearly 900,000 living in areas above the EPA's level of concern.
"The effects of oil and gas pollution are disproportionately afflicting African Americans, particularly cancer and respiratory issues, and the trend is only increasing," said Dr. Doris Browne, the National Medical Association president.
Published March 9, 2020, Author Derrick Z. Jackson / Union of Concerned Scientists
For communities long polluted by industry, which are disproportionately poor and of color, the Trump administration's changes promise particular devastation. Such communities already suffer higher rates of illnesses from asthma to cancer, life-altering effects such as low birth weight and cognitive child development, and daily insults to quality of life in diesel exhaust, soot penetrating into homes and contaminated yards and playgrounds.
If the administration has its way, NEPA implementation guidelines would be rewritten so that even in neighborhoods already densely packed with toxic industries, a proposed facility need only assess its own pollutants, not how much they combine and compound those of nearby facilities to worsen the overall quality of air, water and land.
To make sure residents cannot complain about such compounded damage, the Trump administration is trying to severely limit the opportunity for mothers, fathers, seniors, teens and community leaders to speak directly to the government.
Published Feb. 19, 2020, Author Dr. Brian R. Shmaefsky / Union of Concerned Scientists
Historically, the benefits of science and technology have not been shared equally as is discussed in the 2016 Nature article Is science only for the rich? A 2018 The Atlantic article Trump's EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real discusses that at times science has been used against environmental justice communities. In addition, the "Belmont Report," produced by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, documents a long history of unequal benefits of medical research.
In part due to this history, scientists are not always or immediately trusted or welcome in environmental justice communities. Scientists also have a reputation for 'parachuting' into communities to conduct research and make recommendations for change without ever fully consulting the knowledge and lived experience of the people who live there. Community members want equal access to data, policymakers, and science or technology that can remediate environmental injustice.
Published Dec. 20, 2019, Author Climate Nexus
A major plastics manufacturing complex planned for construction in a highly-polluted region of Louisiana may disrupt a historic slave burial site, The Intercept reports.
Human remains and evidence of grave shafts were discovered earlier this year on land being developed by Formosa Plastics Group in St. James Parish in Louisiana. The plant could double the amount of air pollution in the region and emit 13 million tons of carbon pollution each year. Many of the residents of St. James Parish, located in a stretch of the state known as "Cancer Alley," one of the most polluted stretches in America, say they are descended from slaves who worked on various plantations in the area. "That's sacred ground," activist and St. James Parish resident Sharon Lavigne told The Intercept. "They're saying they don't care about your ancestors. They're slapping us in the face."
Published June 14, 2019, Author Teju Adisa-Farrar & Raul Garcia / Earthjustice
The spirit that drove communities of color and neighborhood residents throughout the U.S. to hang banners, picket, sit in and stand up in the 1950s and 1960s is alive today. Even though several communities of color across the nation have been displaced and burdened by pollution because of freeway development projects in the 1960s, NEPA helps to fight against exclusionary and environmentally disruptive planning processes.
As we fight to end environmental racism, we cannot allow the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to retrench the people's tools for access to justice. We cannot allow them to limit public comments and continue to shut communities out of the NEPA process. It is through direct action and community engagement that NEPA came to be; safeguarding it gives people more power to be a part of the decisions that determine what happens in their communities.
Published April 5, 2020, Author Derrick Z. Jackson / Union of Concerned Scientists
The risk of unequal treatment is embedded in even the seemingly universal "we're-all-in-this-together" advice we are getting to protect ourselves and stop the spread of the coronavirus. One person who sees this clearly is Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. He served on the 2016 Michigan task force which determined that the Flint Water Crisis in that 54-percent African American city was "a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice."
Reynolds retired a year ago but was asked by Flint's mayor to be an advisor for COVID-19 care.
He said he already sees where daily life for disadvantaged people is not being factored into public health advisories. "Take social distancing," he said. "That is much easier to do for a family that owns a single-family home where they can spread out inside the home and have a backyard to get some fresh air in private. That is much harder for people who live in small apartments in buildings where people are always passing each other in the hallways. No one has come up with a strategy as to how those folks are supposed to 'social distance.'"
Published April 7, 2020, Author Liz Carlisle / Yes! Magazine
The absence of a coherent U.S. land policy can be blamed for some of the current problems with farmland concentration, say the authors of the Data for Progress memo. But co-lead author Leah Penniman, founding co-director of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York, argues that the U.S. government has had a very influential de facto land policy over the past century, even if it wasn't articulated as such. "The very basis of U.S. land policy is rooted in the theft of land and the exclusion of people of color from land," Penniman explains. "This, of course, started with the genocidal stealing of almost the entire continent from the stewardship of Indigenous people … [and] throughout much of our history, there have been various state-level property ownership requirements that excluded people of color from being able to own property."
When people of color did amass property, Penniman says, they were targeted with violence.
"The Ku Klux Klan, the White Caps, and the White Citizens Council were responsible for lynching almost 4,500 people, many of whom were landowners, who they saw as having the audacity to get off the plantation and to want to stop sharecropping." The federal government also discriminated against black farmers through USDA programs, Penniman explains, resulting in a rapid decline of black farmers from 14% of the nation's farmers in 1910 to approximately 1% today.
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Under an agreement negotiated by community groups — represented by NRDC and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project — the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) will remove thousands of lead water pipes by 2026 in order to address the chronically high lead levels in the city's drinking water and protect residents' health.
"During this global pandemic more than ever, it's critical that PWSA provide safe drinking water to all city residents, that residents in Pittsburgh continue to have significant say over how ratepayer dollars are spent, and that we do everything we can to take care of the most vulnerable people in our communities," said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, executive director of Pittsburgh United, a coalition of labor, faith and environmental groups that helped negotiate the settlement.
Under the settlement, which was recently approved by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, PWSA must prioritize replacement for residents in high-risk neighborhoods. It must also limit the practice of replacing only part of a lead service line, which can cause lead levels to substantially increase.
PWSA will also expand its free tap water filter program to include low-income renters whose homes may have lead lines, homes with lead lines where PWSA replaces a water meter, and any customer whose tap water contains at least 10 parts per billion of lead.
"The aggressive steps to get the lead out of Pittsburgh outlined in the settlement are necessary to protect the health of children and families," said NRDC attorney Pete DeMarco. "The burdens of lead-contaminated water fall most heavily on low-income families and communities of color, which is why it is so important to prioritize lead service line replacements in those neighborhoods where residents are at greatest risk."
Pittsburgh's drinking water has been contaminated with lead since at least 2016, with levels above the federal action limit in five out of the last eight testing periods. There is no safe level of lead exposure: The heavy metal can cause serious and irreversible damage to the body, affecting the nervous system, fertility and cognitive ability, among other functions, and posing a particularly high risk for children.
Pittsburgh is just the latest in a growing list of cities facing drinking water crises, such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. In 2016, NRDC analysis indicated that more than 18 million people were being served by 5,363 community water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule. But Pittsburgh United said that the settlement could now provide a model for other cities with lead-contaminated drinking water. "Safe water is a right, not a luxury," Kennedy says. "Although work remains to be done to ensure all customers have access to safe and affordable service, this settlement puts PWSA on a path to replacing all residential lead service lines."
Pittsburgh residents who would like to know whether their home is serviced by a lead water line that is slated to be replaced or whether they are eligible for a free filter can contact PWSA's lead help desk at 412-255-8987 or [email protected].
Reposted with permission from Natural Resources Defense Council.
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By Samantha Hepburn
In the expansion of its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto blasted the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 — Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These sites had deep historical and cultural significance.
The shelters are the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.
The mining blast caused significant distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama traditional land owners. It's an irretrievable loss for future generations.
Ancient rock shelters destroyed in Pilbara mining blast on Sunday. PKKP Aboriginal Corporation devastated at loss o… https://t.co/VfpJUGTH1g— Ngaarda Media Pilbara (@Ngaarda Media Pilbara)1590547113.0
Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance, and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.
But the destruction of a culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.
In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.
But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and a disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.
The destruction of a significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation
Not an Isolated Incident
The history of large developments destroying Indigenous heritage sites is, tragically, long.
A $2.1 billion light rail line in Sydney, completed last year, destroyed a site of considerable significance.
More than 2,400 stone artifacts were unearthed in a small excavated area. It indicated Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1830 to manufacture tools and implements from flint brought over to Australia on British ships.
Similarly, ancient rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project. The site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs) across 36,857 hectares.
This area is under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.
But a Senate inquiry revealed emissions from adjacent industrial activity may significantly damage it.
The West Australian government is seeking world heritage listing to try to increase protection, as the regulatory frameworks at the national and state level aren't strong enough. Let's explore why.
What Do the Laws Say?
The recently renamed federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for listing new national heritage places, and regulating development actions in these areas.
At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides a legal framework for their management and protection. It is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing.
But many ancient Aboriginal sites have no national heritage listing. For the recently destroyed Juurkan gorge, the true archaeological significance was uncovered after consent had been issued and there were no provisions to reverse or amend the decision once this new information was discovered.
Where a site has no national heritage listing, and federal legislation has no application, state laws apply.
For the rock shelters in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto was abiding by Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 — which is now nearly 50 years old.
What a story on #SorryDay @RioTinto blows up one of country's oldest known Aboriginal heritage sites. And the worst… https://t.co/1iU4zdGaGr— Sophie McNeill (@Sophie McNeill)1590488484.0
Section 17 of that act makes it an offence to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter any Aboriginal site without the ministerial consent.
But, Section 18 allows an owner of the land — and this includes the holder of a mining licence — to apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee for consent to proceed with a development action likely to breach section 17.
The committee then evaluates the importance and significance of the site, and makes a recommendation to the minister. In this case, the minister allowed Rio Tinto to proceed with the destruction of the site.
No Consultation With Traditional Owners
The biggest concern with this act is there's no statutory requirement ensuring traditional owners be consulted.
This means traditional owners are left out of vital decisions regarding the management and protection of their cultural heritage. And it confers authority upon a committee that, in the words of a discussion paper, "lacks cultural authority."
There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee, nor is there a requirement that at least one anthropologist be on the committee. Worse still, there's no right of appeal for traditional owners from a committee decision.
So, while the committee must adhere to procedural fairness and ensure traditional owners are given sufficient information about decisions, this doesn't guarantee they have a right to consultation nor any right to provide feedback.
Weak in Other Jurisdictions
The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is under review. The proposed reforms seek to abolish the committee, ensuring future decisions on Aboriginal cultural heritage give appropriate regard to the views of the traditional Aboriginal owners.
NSW is the only state with no stand-alone Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, a similar regulatory framework to WA applies in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.
There, if a developer is likely to impact cultural heritage, they must apply for an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit. The law requires "regard" to be given to the interests of Aboriginal owners of the land, but this vague provision does not mandate consultation.
What's more, the burden of proving the significance of an Aboriginal object depends upon external statements of significance. But Aboriginal people, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area.
As in WA, the NSW regulatory framework is weak, opening up the risk for economic interests to be prioritized over damage to cultural heritage.
The federal minister has discretion to assess whether state or territory laws are already effective.
If they decide state and territory laws are ineffective and a cultural place or object is under threat, then the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 can be used.
But this act is also weak. It was first implemented as an interim measure, intended to operate for two years. It has now been in operation for 36 years.
In fact, a 1995 report assessed the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
It recommended minimum standards be put in place. This included ensuring any assessment of Aboriginal cultural significance be made by a properly qualified body, with relevant experience.
It said the role of Aboriginal people should be appropriately recognized and statutorily endorsed. Whether an area or site had particular significance according to Aboriginal tradition should be regarded as a subjective issue, determined by an assessment of the degree of intensity of belief and feeling of Aboriginal people.
Twenty-five years later, this is yet to happen.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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