New America Media / Redwood Age, News Report
Four out of five residents in California’s most polluted neighborhoods are minorities, but it’s the elders among them who face the greatest risks.
“We have lived here the longest, and don’t have the money or opportunity to move away like many younger people do,” said Marie Harrison, a 62-year-old resident of Bayview Hunter’s Point, a highly polluted African-American neighborhood on San Francisco’s southeastern shoreline.
Harrison, a community organizer for the environmental group Greenaction, says her aging neighbors seem to have accepted their plight. Like most other older Americans, they’re rooted in their neighborhood and can’t imagine living among strangers somewhere else.
All Over America
It’s a scenario played out all over America. In Odessa, Texas, seniors living down-wind of polyethylene plants breathe in ethylene, propylene, benzene, and butadiene – known carcinogens – which are released at hundreds and thousands of pounds per day.
In Chester, Penn., the state’s largest garbage-burning incinerator is located right across the street from a residential community that is 95 percent African American. Camden, N.J. is home to 103 toxic waste sites and numerous superfund sites where traces of chromium, lead and other toxic chemicals remain.
Overall, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified thousands of Superfund sites across the country where abandoned and potentially lethal chemicals such as arsenic and magnesium are found in soil and water. In addition, many of these sites are surrounded by large operating factories that emit tons of pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter into the air on a daily basis.
“There are clearly places where there’s lots of bad stuff going on,” said Kathy Sykes, Senior Advisor of the EPA Aging Initiative. “They’re called cancer alleys.”
And a lot of the seniors living on those alleys are the same people who were exposed to the chemicals while working in the factories decades ago. Most of the jobs are long gone, but the aging residents remain and struggle severely with long-term illnesses.
Recent EPA studies found that as people age, their bodies are less able to compensate for the effects of environmental hazards. Prolonged exposure, residual build-up, and a weakened immune system make senior citizens more susceptible to acute effects that cause or worsen chronic diseases.
Excessive exposure to air pollution, especially ozone and particulate matter has been tied to higher risks for heart attacks, cancer and respiratory problems such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the US and is particularly common among older adults. It includes chronic lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema.
As 77 million boomers age, the number of older adults affected by COPD and asthma will grow significantly. “The people who are at risk are those with compromised immune systems,” said Sykes.
The lack of access to good healthcare in these poor communities also makes it much more difficult to exercise preventative measures and treat ailments for many at-risk ethnic elders.
“We are greatly concerned about the well-being of senior citizens,” said Saul Bloom, CEO of Arc Ecology, a San Francisco-based organization advocating national environmental and social responsibility.
Pollutants, of course, are unsafe for people of all ages and greatly affect children’s health. But according to Bloom, the young generations are at an even greater risk of suffering from violence, drugs and other threats that tend to coexist in neglected neighborhoods.
“Even if we did everything possible, and removed every ounce of waste, radioactive pollutant, and particulate matter that affect the lungs, it would not [ease] the mortality rate for young people,” he said.
‘Big Bubble of Pollution’
Solutions for ethnic elders won’t come easily. To say cleaning up industrial pollutants is difficult is a gross understatement, according to several of the environmental experts interviewed for this story. Just finding out which company is responsible is hard enough because industrial plants tend to be found around already polluted areas.
By going to poor neighborhoods, where preexisting contamination exists, factories run a smaller risk of being pinpointed as a health hazard or having to limit or stop operation, according to Bloom.
Testing and sorting chemicals for links to ill health is a challenge that environmental and health experts say they face because multiple manufacturers release different toxins simultaneously in the same area.
Regulated and unregulated airborne chemicals fuse to create what they call “toxic cocktails.” These toxic brews make it nearly impossible to track the effect of individual substances, especially over time as the ingredients change.
“This is the biggest health issue,” said Bloom. “When you add them together, it equates to one big bubble of pollution.”
Individually, industries need to get permits to pollute. But the cumulative effect of those pollutants creates a political and environmental enigma with no easy solution.
“At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell whose pollution belongs to whom,” said Bloom. “There is a lot of finger pointing that goes on…We have done a horrible job at testing and being able to identify the source.”
The federal government is working to reform existing legislation on toxic emissions, but so far only drafts have been proposed. Huge gray areas of regulation lead to blame shifting. This is where the uncomfortable issue of environmental racism comes in.
“You would never have this happen in an all white, middle- or upper-class residential neighborhood,” said Gerald Gage of San Francisco’s Health and Environmental Resource Center. “It wouldn’t be OK. It’s only OK because it’s here [in Hunter’s Point].”
In 1993, the EPA established the Office of Environmental Justice to assure that ethnic groups and the poor were represented in the EPA decision-making process and programs. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has acknowledged that impacted neighborhoods are disproportionately comprised of “the disenfranchised” and “communities of color.”
On a local level, Mrs. Harrison, who has received numerous certifications of honor and appreciation for her community activism in environmental justice, is not afraid to stand up to the confusing rhetoric used by policy makers and big corporations to distract from what she views as blatant environmental racism.
“I’m no science major, but I do have common sense,” she said with a shrug of disgust. “When I see feces floating in the water, orange foam bubbling at the surface, an exodus of fishermen, and notice that pigeons - the rats of the airway - won’t even fly overhead anymore, I know something’s gotta be wrong.”
Nahmyo Thomas wrote this story for RedwoodAge.com as part of a New America Media journalism fellowship sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies.