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Environmental and Occupational Health

Shared Risks, Unequal Burdens

Today environmental hazards are so widespread that none of us can avoid them entirely. Chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once widely used in adhesives, paints, lubricants, electric insulators, and printing inks, can cause skin discoloration, liver disorders, cancer, and developmental delays in children. DDT, a pesticide now banned in the United States but still used widely in developing countries, can cause cancer and endanger wildlife. Lead, once used in plumbing, paint, and gasoline, damages the nervous system. These substances remain in the environment for decades. Even snow in Antarctica still carries residues of PCBs, DDT, and lead.3 Human breast milk contains high levels of some toxins, and human sperm samples contain PCBs.

Economic and social power often determine how much we can protect ourselves from environmental health hazards. Some people can afford to buy bottled water or food without additives, to get better health care, or even to move away from a chemical dump or nuclear power plant. Others cannot. People of color are more likely than whites in the United States to work in more dangerous workplaces, to live closer to environmental hazards, and to dwell in substandard housing. Women of color thus bear a higher body burden (total accumulation) of pollutants than white women.

Communities of color and some low-income white communities face not only higher risks of hazardous exposure but also greater negligence by government agencies. The Commission for Racial Justice (United Church of Christ) found that three of the five largest commercial hazardous-waste landfills in the United States are located in mostly black or Latino communities; three of five blacks and Latinos live in communities with uncontrolled toxic-waste sites; and about half of all Asians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans live near uncontrolled waste sites.4

Environmental health hazards are not only an urban problem. Rural people face heavy exposure to pesticides and herbicides, especially since agribusiness has taken over food production. Of the three million farm workers in the United States, most are migrants, usually Latinos, and 25 percent are women. Female farm workers health issues are often neglected. Even without working in the fields, rural women and children who live nearby are exposed to similar conditions. 

I lived where there was a lot of crop dusting. Every winter I got a sore throat as a reaction to this cotton defoliant they were spraying about the middle of December. When I remembered, I would always ask my doctor, and he was reassuring, even when I was pregnant and due to deliver in January.

Many Native Americans live with persistent low-level radiation from the uranium mining that has taken over much reservation land. Some companies have targeted reservations for toxic-waste dump sites, including sites for radioactive waste from military uses and nuclear power plants.5

Conditions that foster disease transmission are still common in many regions of the world: no garbage pickup, indoor plumbing, or sewer facilities; no access to clean water; and no awareness of how bacteria and viruses are spread. Pesticides, drugs, industrial chemicals, and processes banned as too dangerous in the United States are exported for use in developing countries where regulations are nonexistent or not enforced. How much prevention, protection, and enforcement of laws we can count on in each country varies by workplace and by the strength of labor unions.

Gender, racial, ethnic, and class discrimination intersects with workplace and environmental conditions so that health hazards are borne unequally by people with low incomes and people of color. The movement to right such wrongs is called the environmental justice movement.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

3.  Carol Sue Davidson, Antarctic Lore, in The Cousteau Almanac: An Inventory of Life on Our Water Planet (New York: Doubleday, 1981). Tom Conry, Chemical of the Month: Lead,  Exposure no. 13 (December 1981): 6.
4. Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States (New York: Public Data Access, 1987).
5. Robert Bullard et al., We Speak for Ourselves: Social Justice, Race and Environment (Washington, D.C.: Panos Institute, 1990).


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