Poor Americans Bear More Than Their Share of Pollution

In the sixties, a book with the title “The Poor Pay More” was published documenting the not surprising point that consumer fraud and injustice bear down disproportionately on low income Americans. Now comes a new report describing how the poor suffer more -from environmental pollution where they work, where they live and where their children play.

The study, “Reagan, Toxics and Minorities” has been issued by the Urban Environment Conference — an alliance of labor, minorities and environmental organizations. It a sobering reminder of the plight of the voiceless in our society. A sample: black children suffer from elevated blood lead levels six times more frequently than do white children. The life expectancy of a migrant farm worker is only 49 years.

While other factors associated with poverty breed these grim statistics too little attention has been devoted to a very unequal opportunity to be exposed to harmful chemicals. Harmful liquid waste dumps are not found in Scarsdale, New York or Beverly Hills, CA. They are frequently located instead where minorities reside. And the most toxic pollution concentration are in urban industrial areas and around jobs in unhealthy industries where poor people are found.

As the report points out, low income workers are awarded the jobs that are most dangerous in the textile and steel industries, and in dry cleaning businesses, foundries, hospitals and farm work. Wide spread unemployment among the poor leave them with few alternatives to such hazardous occupations.

Six stories of exposures to such dangers are described in the conference’s 57-page report; (1) Black children with lead poisoning in West Dallas, Texas and public housing tenants in many cities suffering from lead paint contamination; (2) frightened and angry minorities living next to hazardous waste dumps in Alabama and North Carolina; (3) the Hispanic-American struggle in the Rio Grande Valley against the ocean ship burnings of PCBs; (4) Black textile workers in the south breathing cotton dust; (5) the shocking vulnerability of Latinos and Black migrant workers to pesticide poisoning of their entire families; (6) the radiation peril to Native Americans from uranium mines and mill tailings on their reservations.

Where are the protections of the environmental and worker health laws? Weak and unorganized victims rarely receive the protection of ‘law and order’ from their careless and cruel overseers in business and government. But, as Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) writes in his preface to this report: “The Reagan Administration has continued to display remarkable insensitivity to the health concerns of minorities.” Weak cur non-existent enforcement, few inspections and nearly no new health standards have marked the Reagan years of bowing to the corporate pollutants.

The silent, cumulative epidemic of chemical violence, is meeting mounting protest by the poor. They have become far more articulative and demonstrative opponents of environmental contamination than the earlier, white collar environmentalists who first pointed out these pollution caused diseases. For the poor are seeing their children and other kin suffering or dying every day.

(Readers interested in a copy of the report may send their requests to the Urban Environment Conference, c/o United Steelworkers of America, 815 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006.)

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