Archives for category: Environmental Justice

Upstream Contributor, inspirational community organizer, and environmental justice advocate Peggy Shepard has been nominated for a Lady Godiva award.  Please vote for her here.  If you want to learn more about her remarkable work, view her Upstream interview here.  Below you can find the summary of her nomination.

It is startling to realize how one person’s vision can open our eyes to new vistas; how one person’s leadership can inspire others to strengthen community resilience and acknowledge our collective responsibility to each other. The environment is where we live, work, play, and go to school, and Peggy Shepard helps us understand that the environment is everyone’s challenge because our communities share a common destiny. She inspires us to believe and to organize to achieve access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, a toxic-free environment, and to improve children’s environmental health i.e. asthma and lead poisoning. She is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT For Environmental Justice (WE ACT), based in Northern Manhattan,home to over 630,000 mostly low-income African-Americans and Latinos, which has a 25-year history of combining grassroots organizing, environmental advocacy and environmental health research.

Recently a Washington DC office was opened to voice the concerns of underserved communities in developing policies. A West Harlem resident, she spent 8 years developing a grassroots organization of volunteers into a staffed organizing and advocacy non-profit which raises $1.6 million per year to assist in training over 500 parents to have healthier homes, and has conducted public education campaigns on children’s health that reached over 1 million homes citywide through workshops, radio, and bus ads. By engaging residents like me to develop and implement a common vision around commonly held values, she inspires us to embrace challenge and pursue solutions that might otherwise elude us.

When she moved to Harlem in the ‘80s and 3 senior citizens came to her and asked for her help in organizing the community around environmental exposures, she began what has been a 25-year history of commitment to a set of principles that value community knowledge and engagement in achieving a more sustainable environment, and to building community capacity through organizing, training, and partnerships with academics and scientists.

Her drive and commitment and community organizing skills achieved the retrofit of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant whose emissions were exacerbating asthma attacks in neighborhood children, and a $1.1 million community environmental benefits fund. Her work contributed to the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) retrofitting its citywide diesel bus fleet to cleaner fuels resulting in cleaner air citywide.

View Peggy’s Upstream interview here.

From Earth Justice:

Each year, nearly one billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed into fields and orchards around the country. As the families who live nearby can tell you, those pesticides don’t always stay in the fields and orchards.

Miller-McCune: America’s hidden diseases.

Millions of poor Americans living in distressed regions of the country are chronically sick, afflicted by a host of hidden diseases that are not being monitored, diagnosed or treated, researchers say. From Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the segregated inner cities of the Great Lakes and Northeast, they say, and from Navajo reservations to Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 20 chronic diseases are promoting the cycle of poverty in conditions of inadequate sanitation, unsafe water supplies and rundown housing. “These are forgotten diseases among forgotten people,” said Peter Hotez, a microbiologist at George Washington University, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Sabin Vaccine Institute and co-founder of the institute’s Global Network for Neglected Tropical Disease Control. “If these were diseases among middle-class whites in the suburbs, we would not tolerate them. They are among America’s greatest health disparities, and they are largely unknown to the U.S. medical and health communities.”  More . . .

From St. Louis Beacon: Where we live can determine how long we live (by Robert Joiner).

* * *  Larry Chavis, George Banks, Tracy Blue and Carolyn Dickerson are among the St. Louisans featured in this Beacon series about how and why some health and social conditions afflict African Americans in certain zip codes at a much higher rate than whites. They are known as health disparities or inequities. And, for the most part, they have been accepted as perplexing but unsolvable facts of black and white life in St. Louis and the nation.Public health as prevention

Until now, that is. One aim of the new health-reform law is to reverse the notion that health disparities are inexplicable and inevitable. The new law is expected to address the issue in part by re-energizing the public health movement.

While medical doctors treat disease, public health workers identify trends, explain why people get sick and address conditions that trigger illnesses. Public health work includes screening children for lead poisoning, offering nutrition programs for diabetics, and setting up sex education classes to try to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. Over the years, this work has faltered from a lack of manpower and money. That has allowed some diseases to move way beyond the prevention stage. Traditional medicine has been left to fill the void with a case-by-case approach to treating disease. It as if we had responded to the massive BP oil spill by dealing with one oil-soaked fish at a time.

Still, the news in some poor St. Louis neighborhoods isn’t all bad. Examples include the city Health Department’s sustained attack on lead poisoning and a similar effort planned for childhood asthma. Another is the Maternal and Child Health Coalition’s push to reduce infant mortality. These challenges have prompted providers to be more imaginative in the ways they view and tackle health problems.

Looking upstream

We can trace the roots of such efforts all the way back to the 19th century and the work of Dr. John Snow. He’s credited with looking beyond conventional thinking during a cholera outbreak in London. Snow eventually traced the epidemic to a contaminated public water pump. Removing the pump is said to have helped end an epidemic that claimed 600 lives. Fast forward to 2010, and the moral might be that high-tech medicine isn’t always the answer and certainly not the cheapest solution to some diseases in St. Louis.

“The public fails to realize that some illnesses have an environmental influence and are preventable,” says Dr. William Kincaid, former head of the St. Louis Health Department and now head of the local Asthma Coalition. “We develop systems to treat them after they happen, but we don’t look upstream to see why we are having these problems. And we lose an opportunity to make some of them go away. Lead is a classic example. So is asthma.”

Location influences wellness

Hope and despair run on parallel tracks in some of the worst neighborhoods on the north side. Hope surfaces unexpectedly as a motorist takes in street after street of gloomy sights, then turns a corner and finds a suburban-like setting of a block or two of stately, market-rate brick homes, trimmed lawns, fenced-in backyards and newly poured concrete sidewalks out front. These neighborhoods still include many working-class and middle-class families, some of who can’t afford to leave. Others stay out of a sense of pride in a part of town that is rich in black history.

But the north side’s decay is never far away. Some neighborhoods have been reduced to a treeless landscape with crumbling houses, weedy sidewalks, cracked storefront windows and closed factories. The higher than average concentration of health problems in this part of town mirrors the conditions of many of its residents. You find many here with stooping bodies, burned out by cancer and respiratory conditions, heart disease and other illnesses that are the results of inhaling too much nicotine and bad air and consuming food high in fat and low in fiber.

The stress of living in what amounts to a racially isolated, crime-ridden wasteland also takes its toll. Many residents have no choice except to settle for substandard housing, unreliable public transportation, limited access to grocery stores and the trauma of hearing gunshots and witnessing occasional fights and other forms of violence. It is a community where Larry Chavis’ mom might be more likely to happen upon a crack house than a store that sells WIC-approved fresh fruits and vegetables essential to the health of her lead-poisoned son.Just as location affects the value of property, it influences wellness. In other words, where people live and how they live matter. Last February, that point was brought into sharp focus with a study from the University of Wisconsin’s Population Institute. The institute ranked the quality of life of communities within states, the first such study of its kind.

Stable St. Charles County ranked at the top. St. Louis, despite its world-class health facilities and providers, ranked at or near the bottom for most indicators, ranging from smoking to STDs. The survey showed that where people live, rather than access to clinical care, can make a big difference in health outcomes, according to Julie Willems Van Dijk, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin’s Population Institute.

“St. Louis is a perfect example of what we’re trying to show,” she says. “You have very good access to care and pretty good quality of care for those who get the care. But that alone is not enough to produce good health. It’s not just having a doctor. We’re saying it’s all of those factors working together to determine health outcomes.”

More.

John Wargo is a Professor of Risk Analysis, Environmental Policy, and Political Science, and Chair of the Yale College Environmental Studies Major and Program. He has been a professor at Yale since 1985 and has lectured extensively on the limits and potential of environmental law, with a focus on human health.

His latest book, Green Intelligence Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, winner of several prestigious awards, compares the history of five environmental threats to children’s health over the twentieth century: nuclear weapons testing, pesticides, hazardous sites, vehicle particulate emissions, and hormonally active ingredients in plastics.  Below is a video of  the introductory portion of a public-radio interview he gave about the book.

From wnycradio:

Yale University professor John Wargo discusses the impact of chemical exposures on women and children, and how, although people are growing more environmentally aware, there are still more than 80,000 synthetic compounds whose effects on human health havent been sufficiently studied. In his book, Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, he explains our misunderstanding of everyday chemical hazards and offers a plan for improving our awareness.

Listen to the entire interview here.

Click here to listen to John Wargo interviewed on NPR’s Living on Earth.

Lisa Jackson

From the Washington Post:

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who pushed through the most sweeping curbs on air pollution in two decades, announced Thursday morning that she will resign her post.

Jackson, who will step down shortly after President Obama’s State of the Union address next month, said she was “ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference.” Many had expected that she would not remain for the administration’s second term; Jackson herself joked about it recently.

Outspoken on issues including climate change and the need to protect poor communities from experiencing a disproportionate amount of environmental harm, Jackson pressed for limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants and on dumping mining waste into streams and rivers near mines.

The slew of rules the EPA enacted over the past four years included the first greenhouse-gas standards for vehicles, cuts in mercury and other toxic pollution from power plants and a tighter limit on soot, the nation’s most widespread deadly pollutant. Many congressional Republicans and business groups claimed Jackson was waging a “war on coal.” But she was a hero to the environmental community.

The president issued a statement praising Jackson.

“Under her leadership, the EPA has taken sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, including implementing the first national standard for harmful mercury pollution, taking important action to combat climate change under the Clean Air Act, and playing a key role in establishing historic fuel economy standards that will save the average American family thousands of dollars at the pump while also slashing carbon pollution,” Obama said.

Read the entire article here.

From Rollbackcampaign:

Camden has the second highest cancer rate in New Jersey, and the eighth highest in the nation thanks to over 100 toxic waste sites. When the St. Lawrence Cement Company tried to build yet another polluting factory in Camden, citizens banded together and convinced a district court to halt construction. Then the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v Sandoval that citizens could not sue based on discriminatory effect. In order to block the construction of yet another polluter, citizens would need to show that there was intentional discrimination.

This clip is part of a video made by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, which exposes the negative consequences of a federal judiciary that is increasingly opposed to civil rights protections. Mr. Nelson puts a human face on what has come to be known as the “rollback” of civil rights.

From Harvard Gazette (10/01/12):

Writer Rachel Carson’s feared “silent spring” — the nightmare scenario in which widespread chemical spraying wipes out insects and the birds that feed on them —has not happened. But the world today faces no shortage of environmental challenges that demand the sort of intense energy and activism that she embodied.

That was the message of a panel of experts, writers, and activists Thursday at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s seminal book that chronicled the environmental harm wrought by pesticides and warned against their overuse.

The publication of “Silent Spring” often has been credited with galvanizing a generation into action against environmental degradation, with sparking the start of the modern environmental movement, and with leading to a ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972.

“This was a book, in some ways, that really changed at least the U.S. and perhaps even the world,” said Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the event’s host. “It’s … an impassioned plea for a change in the course of human history.”

“Science and Advocacy: The Legacy of Silent Spring” was sponsored by the Center for the Environment and featured New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, and writer and activist Bill McKibben.

It also featured several Harvard faculty members, including William Clark, the Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); Rebecca Henderson, McArthur University Professor; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies  at HKS; James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); and John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation in the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

Schrag, the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering, opened the event by reading passages from the book, in which Carson warned that humanity’s drive to subdue nature was bearing unintended consequences that threatened humanity itself.

Panelists said that Carson’s power came from a combination of factors. As a biologist, the science that she presented in the book was solid. And as a writer, her prose presented the situation in a way that was not only accessible to readers but also moved them to action.

Revkin, who has written about the environment for decades, said what struck him in reviewing the book was her treatment of uncertainty, a key element in any scientific debate. Carson was frank with readers about what experts knew and what they didn’t know, Revkin said, showing her readers respect and trusting that they could handle uncertainty. She let them make up their own minds, something missing from many discussions of science today, which tend toward black and white.

“She was able in this book to allow the reader to have authority to worry. She wasn’t telling them to worry,” Revkin said.

Revkin also highlighted the opposition that the book generated, and that continues today. Some critics suggest that the reduced use of DDT and other pesticides cost human lives, particularly in the fight against malaria.

Remaining objective under pressure

Panelists also discussed the tension that scientists feel between the pressure to remain objective and the public’s need for informed leaders, like Carson, to push for science-based reform.

McKibben, who authored 1989’s “The End of Nature,” the first book on climate change written for a general audience, said Carson’s impact extended beyond her book. Though riddled with cancer, which would lead to her death just two years after the book’s publication, Carson remained a vocal advocate of the ideas laid out in it.

McKibben said that people have different identities, at work and outside of it. One identity is that of a citizen, and it is in that role that people should work for change, even if advocacy may seem contrary to other roles. At Harvard, McKibben said, the University’s efforts to erect green buildings doesn’t go far enough in fighting climate change, and he voiced support for efforts to have the endowment divest oil company stock.

Clark said that prominent scientists sometimes fail to examine whether they’re living in ways consistent with the sustainability value that they espouse — flying around the world on carbon dioxide-spewing aircraft to give speeches when other alternatives exist. He cautioned that scientists and others supporting sustainability — even a noted climate change champion like former Vice President Al Gore, whose energy-gobbling home generated accusations of hypocrisy — can suffer when they don’t live according to stated beliefs.

“I think we let ourselves off the hook too easily,” Clark said.

Some panelists talked about the personal impact of Carson’s writings. McCarthy said Carson’s earlier book on the ocean, “The Sea Around Us,” was also eloquently written and widely read by a generation of oceanographers, including him. Spengler detailed how the echoes of Carson’s writing reached him in recent years, reminding him of a long-ago day at play in fields overflown by a biplane that sprayed him and his companions. Recent blood tests, he said, showed that the derivatives of DDT sprayed that day remain in his body.

Lessons worth teaching again

Despite the unquestioned impact of “Silent Spring,” some of its lessons appear to need reteaching. A few years ago, Spengler studied the high incidence of asthma in Boston public housing, tracing it to high levels of pesticides sprayed in the buildings. His work prompted adoption of integrated pest management techniques in the buildings and highlighted the importance of continued vigilance.

Though Carson came under intense attack from the chemical and agricultural industries and their supporters, she never wavered, Beinecke said. If she were alive today and saw the thousands of chemicals, some unregulated, that surround us and viewed the dangers of climate change, she’d likely focus her advocacy there.

“Would she be distressed?” Beinecke asked. “I’m sure she’d share the distress we all have, but I think she’d be motivated’’ to act.

Image by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer.

An Northeastern University article about Upstream Contributor Phil Brown:

Many con­t­a­m­i­nants are easy for the public to spot, like emis­sions from the tailpipe of a car or the sludge from a mas­sive oil spill washing up on the ocean’s shores.

But Phil Brown, who joined Northeastern’s fac­ulty this fall, says many others are far less easy to iden­tify — including those found in beauty prod­ucts like deodorant and cologne or in flame retar­dants, which he has studied extensively.

“It’s the things we don’t think about being toxic that are in our everyday lives,” said Brown, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Health Sci­ences with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences.

For Brown, a renowned scholar whose inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research com­bines social sci­ence and envi­ron­mental health, issues like these are con­stantly in his crosshairs. Over the last 13 years at Brown Uni­ver­sity, he led a research group on envi­ron­mental health sci­ence that was sup­ported by a range of grants from sev­eral fed­eral agen­cies, including the National Insti­tutes of Health, the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency.

His research included focusing on bio­mon­i­toring, which mea­sures the level of con­t­a­m­i­nants in the human body, and on house­hold expo­sure mon­i­toring, which mea­sures tox­i­cants found in the air and dust inside our homes and the air in our driveways.

Now at North­eastern, Brown is the director of the new Social Sci­ence Envi­ron­mental Health Research Insti­tute. The institute’s mis­sion is to bring together an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers to con­duct socialscience research, teaching, com­mu­nity engage­ment and policy work in the field.

Brown said envi­ron­mental health researchers should be nimble and attuned to the world’s emerging envi­ron­mental health issues. Brown, for his part, nav­i­gated to the field of envi­ron­mental health sci­ence in the 1980s while working in mental health policy. At the time, a col­league was serving as an expert wit­ness in a high-​​profile groundwater-​​contamination case in Woburn, Mass., in which civil suits were brought against two com­pa­nies fol­lowing com­mu­nity con­cerns over rising levels of child­hood leukemia and other illnesses.

The Woburn case cap­tured Brown’s atten­tion imme­di­ately, com­pelling him to investigate.

“I spent a lot of time with the fam­i­lies who had been affected, whose chil­dren died or became sick, and that really changed my life,” said Brown, who wrote a book on the topic called “No Safe Place: Toxic Waste, Leukemia, and Com­mu­nity Action.”

Brown soon real­ized that many other com­mu­ni­ties grapple with sim­ilar envi­ron­mental health issues, which led him to engage in the larger debate about envi­ron­mental causes of ill­nesses. Over the years, he has also exam­ined health-​​focused social move­ments in America dating back to the begin­ning of Medicare and Medicaid.

“You never know where the work will take you next,” said Brown, who earned his Ph.D. in soci­ology from Bran­deis Uni­ver­sity. “I’m always looking for inter­esting new things that are impor­tant, that con­cern people and that have an effect on many people’s lives.”

Many envi­ron­mental health issues are local by nature, but Brown said they also serve as cat­a­lysts for world­wide envi­ron­mental change. He praised inno­va­tors before him who paved the way for this type of thinking — including Barry Com­moner, one of the founders of modern ecology, who passed away last week, and Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book “Silent Spring” exposed the dan­gers of the pes­ti­cide DDT. Both thought leaders, he said, brought envi­ron­mental dan­gers to the public eye and helped spark the global envi­ron­mental movement.

“We need to have those big visions and not be afraid to say, ‘This is how the world can be better many years down the road,’” Brown said.

Visit Phil Brown’s main Upstream page.

An article about Upstream expert Peggy Shepard was recently published in the Amsterdam News:

Peggy Shepard knows that advocacy brings results. Serving as executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), she has seen first-hand what can happen when you try to improve things environmentally in northern Manhattan.

Founded in 1988, WE ACT is not only the state’s first environmental justice organization run by people of color, but it has also been key in making sure that residents living in northern Manhattan are breathing clean air, getting fresh water and receiving safe living conditions.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Trenton, N.J., Shepard came to New York to pursue a career in journalism. After working as the first Black reporter for the Indianapolis News, she worked at Time-Life, Redbook, Essence and Black Enterprise in editorial positions. However, after leaving Black Enterprise, she desired something else.

“I wanted to do something with a little more substance,” she said. “I thought I would do serious articles, but magazines at the time were not ready to do serious articles.”

With that, she entered politics as a speechwriter and later became the Manhattan public relations director for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. She also worked with New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Bill Lynch. Shepard eventually was elected to the position of Democratic District leader, serving alongside Chuck Sutton, nephew to the late Percy Sutton.

Her stint in politics allowed her to travel the state and make solid contacts. She even ran for state Assembly and City Council. However, Shepard also saw inequality among the communities in New York she visited.

Said Shepard, “I got to meet a lot of people around the state and see the differences between certain resources people had in other communities than they had in Harlem. I saw what activism did for the community, and I realized Harlem did not have that same level of activism.”

The first issue Shepard took on was the North River Waste Treatment Plant in 1986 in Harlem, which is now Riverbank State Park. Odors and emissions from the plant were making residents sick. After filing a lawsuit and winning the case, the $1 million settlement was used to start WE ACT.

In another lawsuit filed in 1988, Shepard led the fight against the MTA over the building of a bus depot. Cancer-causing emissions and harmful air pollution, along with the MTA not getting environmental consulting on the project, contributed to a victory that halted the project.

One of her most recent victories is the building of the new Harlem Piers in 2010. The city wanted to build a hotel in the space, but thanks to advocacy from residents and Shepard’s push, the city backed down and built a much-needed public waterfront space in Harlem.

Today, WE ACT operates as a nonprofit organization with a staff of 14 people not only advocating for better conditions in Harlem, but also educating communities on what they can do to save the environment, like recycling and being aware of various environmental issues.

“I feel great, and a lot of people ask me what keeps me going. It’s the activism,” she said. “This isn’t a job, it’s social justice. We need community residents to be active and concerned about issues in the community, to come together and do something about them.”

View Peggy’s Upstream interview here.

Upstream Contributor Peggy Shepard speaks on Environmental Justice and surfacing the meme of “Sacrifice Zones.”

Visit Peggy Shepard’s main Upstream page.

Lindsey Konkel has just published an outstanding article on Environmental Health News.  Here is an excerpt:

When doctors told Wanda Ford her 2-year-old son had lead poisoning, she never suspected that the back yard in her low-income neighborhood was the likely culprit.

Ford knew that exposure to the heavy metal could be dangerous. So when she and her husband moved into the Lower Lincoln Street neighborhood, Ford, then pregnant, took steps to make sure their 100-year-old home was lead-free.

“We never thought to test the soil – my son played in the back yard all the time,” said Ford, whose son is now seven.

It’s long been known that children in poorer neighborhoods like Ford’s are more likely to be exposed to lead, industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust and other contaminants. Now, scientists are beginning to suspect that low-income children aren’t just more exposed – they actually may be more biologically susceptible to them, even at low levels.

A growing body of research suggests that the chronic stressors of poverty may fundamentally alter the way the body reacts to pollutants, especially in young children. Several studies have found that such stress may exacerbate the effects of lead on children’s developing brains, while others reported more asthma symptoms in kids with simultaneous exposure to air pollution and socioeconomic problems.

Everyone experiences stress occasionally; it can improve focus and performance to overcome obstacles at work, during athletic competitions, or in everyday life. But stress also can harm the body.

“When the stress is chronic and the stressors are out of our control, we experience it as a threat rather than a challenge,” said Dr. Rosalind Wright, a physician and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. “This type of stress can have negative, lasting effects on key systems in the body. It’s like having the fight or flight response turned on all the time.”

Schools and homes next to refineries and Superfund sites, farm workers drinking toxic water, urban children breathing exhaust from congested streets. Many of these people are living in poverty or with low incomes, and they have to cope with socioeconomic problems as well as high exposure to pollutants. Scientists say living in such areas and facing financial strain, racial issues and high crime rates can wear down the systems responsible for controlling immunity and hormones. Hormones needed for proper brain development may be altered, or the immune system may continually release inflammatory molecules into the blood.

“This may make you more susceptible to everything else around you, including pollution,” said Jane Clougherty, an exposure scientist and epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

One + one = four

Stress, when combined with certain pollutants, may produce a much greater health effect than either stress or pollution alone.

“It would be like adding one and one together and getting three or four,” said Dr. Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a non-profit organization focused on applying science to promote health. “Socioeconomic status may affect underlying biology, making exposure to certain chemicals more adverse for the poorer kid.”

In Worcester, about 40 miles west of Boston, nearly one in five residents lives below poverty level, almost double the Massachusetts average, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Its median household income is roughly 30 percent lower than the state’s.

Worcester is representative of many old manufacturing towns across the country. “With a decline in manufacturing, you get a decline in certain types of pollution, but you are also left with ongoing problems such as lead contamination in soil, which is typical of a lot of older American towns and cities,” said Katherine Kiel, an environmental economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. “Low-income housing is often built where property is cheapest. Unfortunately, these areas often have more pollution.”

Socioeconomic stress “may make you more susceptible to everything else around you, including pollution.  Jane Clougherty, University of PittsburghThe eaves of Ford’s home – one of Worcester’s iconic triple-decker apartment houses – are blackened by soot from trucks and cars. From her front porch, she can see the on-ramp to the interstate highway that bisects the city.

“This feels like a depressed town. There are a lot of neglected, dilapidated places. It’s not very child-friendly,” said Ford, who is not using her real name for fear that her son will be bullied at school about his learning disabilities.

Ford is black, as is roughly 12 percent of Worcester. One small study published last year found that women in Boston who faced racial discrimination and community violence had higher levels of a stress hormone linked to preterm births.

Gang activity and a drug raid at a house nearby have brought community violence close to home. “My husband and I didn’t see it at first when we moved here, but it’s pervasive,” said Ford.

Rates of violent crimes in Worcester are about 17 percent higher than the national average. In 2010, there were roughly 471 assaults, armed robberies and murders per 100,000 inhabitants in Worcester. The national average for that same period was 404 violent crimes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

She worries constantly about the safety of her kids. Four of them, all under the age of 15, live at home.

When her son was born in 2004, he seemed healthy. “Looking back, there were signs of developmental delays early on, like he drooled too much, but we didn’t think much of it,” she said.

When he was 2, his doctor found that his blood lead levels were elevated, though they fell below the commonly defined threshold for effects of lead. Ten micrograms per deciliter has traditionally been defined as the harmful level, but recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered it to five, recognizing that effects can occur at lower levels.

Synergy between lead and stress

With lead pollution, “the toxicity of lead may be stronger in a child also exposed to the stress of poverty,” said Dr. Robert Wright, a pediatrician and environmental health scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and husband of Rosalind Wright.

Lead exposure, which has been linked to reduced IQs, attention problems and aggressive behavior, may be more detrimental to low-income kids than to children in families with higher incomes. Children in Boston began to show reduced IQ at blood lead levels as low as six micrograms per deciliter, while kids from families with more financial resources only began to show cognitive deficits at levels greater than 10, according to one study.

“If this synergy exists between stress and lead, from a biological perspective, it’s plausible this link exists between stress and other neurotoxic pollutants, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well,” said Robert Wright.

For years, toxicologist Deborah Cory-Slechta of University of Rochester and her colleagues have studied the combined effects of lead and stressful conditions on lab rats. Lead plus stress had effects on their learning ability and brains that did not occur with either of those factors alone, according to their research.

Researchers are trying to tease apart why chronic stress may make some pollutants more harmful. Both human and animal studies suggest that it can throw key systems of the body out of whack. At a young age, it may create hormonal shifts that permanently alter the way the body responds to future stresses, including chemical exposures. It also may weaken the immune system or trigger inflammation.

“Inflammation is central to a lot of chronic diseases we worry about today,” including respiratory diseases such as asthma, Clougherty said.

In one study, young male laboratory rats put under chronic stress showed a rapid, shallow breathing pattern when inhaling polluted air – unlike rats exposed only to the pollution.

The researchers created a stressful environment by placing the young male rat in the home cage of an older, dominant male twice a week. The stressed rats had higher levels of molecules associated with inflammation in their blood.

Also, in East Boston, children who were previously exposed to community violence were more likely to show signs of asthma when breathing traffic-related air pollution than children in less violent neighborhoods. “This suggests a model where stress impacts the child’s susceptibility to pollution,” said Clougherty.

In addition to asthma, this may make low-income children more predisposed to diabetes, heart disease and even dementia later in life.

Kids living with violence also may experience more wear and tear on their DNA, damage that has been linked to disease later in life, according to a Duke University study published in April.

Susceptibility starts in the womb. Exposure to stress and pollution before birth and during early childhood may be particularly harmful because “both may alter development of the brain, lungs and nervous system during these critical periods,” said Rosalind Wright.

This raises an important question: Are people protected by policies that just consider their chemical exposures without looking at their living conditions, too? Many scientists think not.

Increased risks due to social status are “a critically important but neglected area within risk assessment, and should be incorporated in the future,” Harvard epidemiologists Joel Schwartz and David Bellinger and Johns Hopkins’ Thomas Glass wrote in a 2011 report.

Schettler said “this new understanding has the potential to change the way we think about interventions for low-income children.”

More.

From

March 22, 2012 was World Water Day. See how North Carolina citizens came together to protect their waters from coal ash.

It’s no secret that coal is our dirtiest energy source. However, what many people don’t know is that as coal burns, many of its most toxic elements, including heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and chromium, are concentrated in the ash that remains and the sludge that’s scrubbed from smokestacks. This by-product is called coal ash. It’s the second largest industrial waste stream in United States and is essentially unregulated.

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Advancing Environmental Justice and Urban Sustainability, 6th Annual Arnold J, Alderman Memorial Lecture, Martin Luther King Celebration, Yale Peabody Museum

From HEAN:

The Health and Environment Action Network (HEAN) is a national and locally driven effort committed to securing the right of all people to clean air and water. A project of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health (the Alliance) and funded through a grant from the W.F. Kellogg Foundation, HEAN’s goal is to identify health risks from air and water pollution and mobilize community solutions.

At HEAN’s four partner sites around the country, volunteers use Eco-Pacs (mobile pollution sensors, GPS devices, and cameras) to measure air and water pollution in the community. Communities use these measurements, mapped on Google Earth images, with pictures and videos to tell their community’s environmental health story and formulate strategies to address environmental hazards.

Through HEAN, the Alliance and its partner sites are encouraging national and local action to improve the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health and well-being of communities.

 

 

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