According to a national survey of children aged 1-5 years, elevated blood levels of Lead – a toxic chemical commonly found in older homes, with exposures linked to developmental challenges in children – were found to be significantly higher among children belonging to poor families, and those enrolled in Medicaid , compared with non-Hispanic white or Mexican American children.  Studies have also found that children living in the Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx that have been exposed to chemicals commonly found in plastics and personal care products– like phthalates – have elevated risk of asthma-related airway inflammation. And of the six million Americans who live in close proximity to a coal plant, 39 percent are people of color.   What these statistics show is that race and the type of environment you live, work and play in, can dictate your health.  For people of color, that are low-income, this phenomenon is known as environmental racism.

In 2014, we celebrate several milestones in civil rights. 60 years ago, we de-segregated our public institutions with Brown vs. the Board of Education and 46 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lead the striking of the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, which was the civil and human rights movement that would soon become known to many as the environmental justice movement.

The Environmental justice (EJ) movement has fought to create a seat at the decision-making table for people of color and low income people and it brings an end to environmental racism – making sure that no person, despite, their race, ethnicity, social status, political power or the income, will be disproportionately, or negatively impacted by environmental laws and policies that are not protective of public health.

Communities across the country began to speak out about ALL forms of racism. They were tired of living near hazardous waste landfills, tired of waking up to the spills of the chemical manufacturing facility that violate the comfort of their homes.  They were tired of their family members getting sick and dying because of some chemical that infiltrated their water system.  These were the types of harsh realities that engendered a generation of community activities and leaders that – through pressure and persistence – led to signing of the first executive order to mandate that all federal government agencies make their policies and programs in accordance with the principles of environmental justice.

February 11th was the 20th anniversary of the signing of that very Executive Order, the only Executive Order in our federal history to force agencies in the Federal Government to specifically consider how their work helps or harms low income communities of color.  It was through Executive Order 12898: Addressing Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations that Environmental Racism was brought to the forefront.  It is up to us to acknowledge the challenges by understanding the environmental racism of the past, but also hold our leaders – local, state and federal leaders – accountable to abolish environmental racism now and in the future.

You do not have to be an environmentalist to fight against environmental racism. Environmental JUSTICE is needed in many areas of our lives….

  • Where we work: making sure that people have safe places to work and are not being exposed to harmful chemicals, and the good jobs are available in all communities
  • Where we live: living in homes that are free of lead, and energy efficient (operate in a manner that conserves energy and reduces costs for the homeowner)
  • Where we learn: avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals and other air quality concerns in schools and ensuring schools have the proper ventilation, cooling, and proper water quality
  • Where we shop and what we buy: promoting products that are not made from chemicals – like Bisphenol-A and Phthalates – that have been shown to cause health concerns in children;  avoiding 99 cent stores that carry products that are banned outside of the United States but still sold here due to the lack of updated, meaningful regulations; and discouraging ethnic personal care products – like perms/relaxers, cosmetics – that are composed of unsafe chemicals
  • What we eat: addressing the lack of access to organic and fresh foods
  • How we move: providing adequate and clean transportation options that are safe and affordable; providing access to open-spaces for play

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, I challenge you to take action!

Find an issue that hits home: What do you care about? Find whatever hits close to home and write a letter to your Representative and/or Senator.

Use it as a teachable moment: Whether it’s your son, daughter, students or a close friend, share your ACTION with the hope of a REACTION.  Injustice in any form, starts with the action of one person.

Encourage accountability: Starting on February 11th, we encourage you to add your voice to the many voices of the environmental justice community to let our federal agencies and our Congressional Representatives know to continue to “close the environmental justice gap”, and insure that low income, communities of color are heard and protected.  Help us tweet out environmental justice facts and call and encourage your Representative  to sign-on to the Environmental Justice Resolution that will be circulated through their offices on next week and spread the word about environmental justice throughout the Halls of Congress!

As we move through the month of February and the remainder of 2014, let’s take actions that will eventually make all injustices – including environmental racism – a piece of history.