Environmental Justice

Research has shown that low-income communities of color across the United States bear the heaviest burdens of health risk, in part because they are disproportionately situated near polluting facilities and heavily used transit corridors.

Advocates for environmental justice are finding natural allies in breast cancer activists. Since the 1990s, breast cancer activists have become one of the most powerful disease-affected constituencies in the nation. Perhaps because of women’s history as a disenfranchised majority and the long struggle with breast cancer as an invisible disease, breast cancer activists have become key innovators in empowerment strategies that parallel and provide new models for environmental justice. Breast cancer activists, in turn, learn from leaders in the long struggle for racial equality.

The breast cancer advocacy and environmental justice communities are now linked through a collaboration among Silent Spring Institute, Communities for a Better Environment, Brown University, and the University of California–Berkeley. This collaboration is investigating the role of household pollutants and environmental justice in health in divergent communities: Richmond, California, which is largely low-income, with a predominance of Latinos and African Americans; Bolinas, California, which is rural and primarily white; Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a region of predominantly middle class white residents, with many retirees; and Providence, Rhode Island, a city with working class neighborhoods contaminated by abandoned industrial sites.

“Statistics on environmental injustices in the United States are alarming—and enduring,” says Carla Pérez, director of the Northern California Program of Communities for a Better Environment. Even when socioeconomic and other non-racial factors are taken into account, race remains a significant independent predictor of the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities.

“We’re now working with grassroots leaders, community members, and health professionals to discuss the results and the health impacts of chemical exposure,” Pérez adds. “We’re developing strategies for how the community can use the results to support its demands for pollution control and reduction. Ultimately, we want to identify ways to reduce exposure and to provide data that will help the community fight for its rights.”

Working with advisory boards in both Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay Area, the team is engaging with and soliciting ongoing input from environmental justice organizations, breast cancer advocacy organizations, community residents, environmental health scientists, and health care and public health professionals. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is funding the project.

“Participating in this study is giving me the opportunity to find out what chemicals I’m being exposed to without my consent,” says Vicki Sawicki, a resident of Richmond who allowed her home to be studied. “I have many friends and family members with cancer, and I feel there’s a high probability that their illnesses are environmentally caused. We have to stop the constant assault on our health.”

For more details about the study, visit Household Exposure Study in Richmond and Bolinas, California.

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