Pollution Hurts Some People More Than Others. That’s Been True for Centuries.

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tags: pollution, Earth Day, March for Science



When communities around the world mark Earth Day on Saturday, the issues that will be highlighted are ones that, by definition, affect everyone on the planet. And yet, over the centuries during which people have inflicted harm on the environment, the very harm that led activists to create Earth Day in the first place, it has not been the case that those problems affected everyone equally.

This fact was recently highlighted by former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped found the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice under President George H.W. Bush and in March resigned in protest of the EPA budget cuts called for in the Trump Administration’s recent budget proposal. “Communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protection under the law. These communities both urban and rural,” Ali stated in his letter to EPA head Scott Pruitt, “often live in areas with toxic levels of air pollution, crumbling or non-existent water and sewer infrastructure, lead in their drinking water, brownfields from vacant and former industrial and commercial sites, Superfund and other hazardous waste sites,” and exposure to a host of other pollutants. Ali believed the deep budget cuts will put vulnerable communities at greater risk.

The disproportionate impact of pollution on the vulnerable is certainly not new. Concerns regarding a lack of adequate sanitation to combat pollution date back to the mid-19th century, yet it wasn’t until the late 20th century that environmental protection emerged as a nationwide grassroots effort to address what activists have identified as environmental racism.

According to Carl A. Zimring in his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, this phenomenon — defined by former NAACP President Benjamin Chavis in 1992 as, “the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities” — was part and parcel to the construction of race during the post-Civil War era.





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