For Ethnic Elders, Environmental Equality Remains Elusive

Nahmyo Thomas

SAN FRANCISCO (N21) – It’s well known that living in polluted neighborhoods takes a heavy toll on the health of ethnic elders. The hard question is what to do about it.

After decades of inhaling industrial chemicals, ozone and particulate matter, seniors in neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Hunters Point suffer increased risks of cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases such as bronchitis and asthma that are the fourth leading cause of death in America.

“There needs to be a holistic and integrated approach to health,” said Edna James, who sits on San Francisco’s African American Community Health Equity Council. “It needs to include the physical environment surrounding the elder.”

While many experts would agree with her, finding such an approach has been elusive because of the complexity of the problem. Simply drawing cause and effect between health and pollution is hard enough.

Under current law, the EPA must provide evidence that a chemical is harmful to human health before manufacturers are forced to limit its output. But about 85 percent of chemicals emitted by large companies are not even tested for health effects before they are released.

Kathy Sykes, Senior Advisor to the EPA’s Child and Aging Health Division, says “this has been ineffective…very few chemicals have been prohibited from coming into public domain.”

Overdue Reform
The Toxic Control Substance Act has not been reformed since its inception in 1976. Its reform could shift the burden of proof by allowing the EPA to mandate that industries prove chemicals are safe before populations are exposed to them.

“It is one of the top priorities set by the current administrator - to reform how we regulate chemicals and deal with at-risk-populations,” said Sykes.

However, no deadline exists for the revised legislation, and policy makers are up against a tough battle with powerful manufacturing lobbyists that will fight tooth and nail in opposition. Until then, responsibility lies with state and local governments to apply emissions regulations and protect the well-being of surrounding minority populations.

According to community members and activist groups, local leaders don’t do a good job at this. James’ council recently made key policy recommendations to San Francisco officials to help close the health gap for aging minorities.

Key points call for improvements to the quantity and quality of outdoor air monitoring and to ensure that results are clinically analyzed and shared with the community.

“It also needs to be recognized that black people who live in these [environmentally] poor communities are suffering from traumatic stress syndrome and metabolic syndrome,” said James, who is also a registered nurse.

Toxic Tours
To raise awareness of issues, Gerald Gage of the Health and Environmental Resource Center (HERC) provides what he calls Toxic Tours of Hunter’s Point.

During the tour, Gage argues it is unfair to take advantage of an already suffering population by directing 80 percent of the entire 49-square-mile city’s waste into their 5.5 square-mile neighborhood.

The streets next to the sewage treatment facility reek. “That’s because it’s the only uncovered one in the nation,” he explained. “No one wants something like this in their backyard.”

Many activist groups are going beyond immediate environmental clean-up to raise the issue of environmental justice. They argue that suffering from environmental-health is an issue of race.

The group Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEDGE) has spent the past decade working to build an Eco Center in Hunters Point. In recognition of the 2006 victory, of getting Pacific Gas and Electric to shut down and vacate the area after 76 years of operation, the center was recently opened across from the remaining transmission lines.

“It’s not just an eco center; it’s an environmental justice center, the first of its kind,” said Anthony Khalil, an organizer with LEDGE. The center thrives with community volunteers who want to re-expose the natural wetland marsh that was previously hidden by gray machinery.

“It makes a very clear statement” he said pointing to the land around the factory’s old remains. “Let’s not just shut it down. Let’s build it up.”

Greener Futures
Taking the optimistic approach, Saul Bloom of Arc Ecology emphasizes that with so much bad stuff going on there is also room for success and leadership.

“We have an important environmental success story here that cannot be ignored,” he said, noting that the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Superfund site is receiving a cleanup that “other communities across the country would love.”

Although it’s impossible to restore the Superfund site to its pristine state, Bloom attests that the Navy has undergone such intensive scrutiny that it has finally agreed to a level of clean-up that will make the land useable again.
Incorporated in the redevelopment goals is the establishment of an Aging Health Campus to help and to prepare the people of the community as they age.

But even Bloom worries whether environmentalists and legal experts can reach a consensus nationwide that will prevent corporations from simply moving their waste somewhere else. If regulations are too strict in one place, "they’ll ship it all off to Texas where compliance costs and regulations are low,” alleged Bloom.

To move forward, he thinks it will be necessary to replace traditional factory jobs with permanent green technology jobs, not just to clean and counter decades of chemical degradation, but to ensure that the next generation of ethnic elders can age more gracefully without leaving their homes.

Nahmyo Thomas wrote this story for as part of a New America Media journalism fellowship sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies. It is being distributed through as the third part in a three-part series.