Dr. Robert Bullard: Health Equity through Environmental, Economic and Racial Justice

a photo of Robert Bullard speaking to a crowd
Dr. Robert Bullard. Photo by UAB IHR.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.

Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.

EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.

Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.

The Plastic Problem

A crushed water bottle lying on its side.
Crumpled. Source: Jesse Wagstaff, Creative Commons

The world is built to run on cycles.  The water-cycle.  The food-cycle.  The carbon-cycle.  The resources on Earth exist to be used and reused.  At some point, humanity lost sight of that, our eyes drawn to the concept of disposability.  Now we must face the consequences.

Think for a moment: when garbage day comes, how much trash have you collected?  If the millions of people who send their trash to landfills every week have as much as you, what does that look like?  It is important we remember that, after the garbage truck drives off into the distance, our bags of trash do not simply disappear from existence.  They must go somewhere, and they pile up.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.  You have heard it before.  Place your plastic bottles and paper in the blue bin rather than the trash can.  Take shorter showers.  Unplug electronics when they are not being used.  This is often accepted as doing enough.  The sad truth is that this makes a very small dent in the pollution of our environment.

Background

Despite being aware of its impact on the planet, most of us cannot imagine day to day life without plastic.  However, the world has not always relied on plastic as we know it.  Though naturally derived plastics have been in use for ages, the first fully synthetic plastic was not developed until 1907.  In the 1930s, its use was common in aspects of the war such as military vehicles.  Since then, plastics have become increasingly commonplace and depended on in everyday life.  It is estimated that over 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.

Plastic does not decompose like other materials.  It is estimated that it takes at least 450 years to decompose but may never actually do so.  It shrinks and is often mistaken for food by animals or ends up in our water.  More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans due to litter and mismanaged trash that never even reaches a landfill.  According to the United Nations, it is possible that the oceans will hold more plastic than fish by 2050 if something does not change.

We are constantly surrounded with promotions of the concept of “out with the old, in with the new.”  Replace clothes every time a new style gains popularity.  Replace technology as soon as newer models are released.  Perhaps this is why we are so comfortable with the concept of “disposable” products.  We have developed a frame of mind where the norm is to dispose and replace.  The results of this attitude have huge, negative impacts on the environment, and by extension, human beings.  In his TED talk, “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones sums it up perfectly: “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”

Human Rights

The pollution of the environment is a human rights and public health issue.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 states that we have the right to a standard of living that supports our health and well-being.  The United Nations also recognizes many specific environmental rights.  For example, we have the right to “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.”  We also have the right to seek information regarding environmental issues and to “participate in public decision-making.” Plastic pollution is an increasing contributor to violations of the human rights of people all over the world; we have the right, as well as the responsibility, to be a part of the solution.

Landfills are a specific example of how plastic harms people.  Many items that end up there contain toxins that often leak in to water and soil and remain for years.  Problems can also be found when organic materials, such as food waste, are in landfills.  When they start to decompose in the middle of an enormous pile, they are deprived of oxygen and produce methane, a serious greenhouse gas that can become dangerously flammable.

Landfills also have a direct impact on the lives of entire communities.  As of 2003, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund co-represents the Ashurst/Bar Smith community (ABSCO) in a Title VI complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  ABSCO’s complaint is that the department has discriminated against the community, “by permitting the Stone’s Throw Landfill to open and expand its operations in their predominately (98%) Black community without conducting an assessment of the Landfill’s disparate and discriminatory social, economic, and health impacts on the majority-Black community.”  The landfill had been closed but was reopened in 2002.  Landfills are often placed near low-income, black communities, especially in Alabama.  Many members of the community can trace their family’s ownership of their land back many generations, such as Phyllis Gosa, whose great-grandparents bought the land as former slaves in the 1800s.  As decades have past, such families have been able to see the changes that have occurred since the start of the landfill.

The effects of Stone’s Throw Landfill reported by ABSCO include fear of toxic run-off polluting their water sources, health problems like cancer, respiratory problems, migraines, and dizziness, and gardens no longer producing food.  In the past, this community has been heavily self-reliant, using their own water sources and growing their food on their own land.  Due to the impacts of the landfill, they are now having pay significant costs to replace what their resources can no longer provide.  The EPA closed the complaint in 2017, but the problems continue.

This case is not unique.  Landfills pose daily threats to the health and well-being of people across the country, and yet they continue to grow.

A pile of old, worn down toothbrushes that have been thrown out.
Plastic Toothbrush Debris. Source: NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program, Creative Commons

Legislation

The implementation of some large-scale efforts to decrease the use of plastics and their detriment to societies and the planet have increases as the world realizes the problem that plastic creates. China, who had been the world’s main destination for plastic recyclables until January, banned the import of plastic waste this year.  The European Commission has proposed a ban on nearly all single use plastics.  In 2016, France implemented of a “four-year phase out” of single use plastics such as cutlery and plates.  California banned single use plastic bags and began to require a ten-cent charge on recycled plastic bags in 2014, supporting the use of non-plastic bags for carrying purchases home from the store.  Nearly all of Hawaii’s highly populated cities have banned non-biodegradable plastic bags and paper bags that are made from less than 40% recycled material.

However, the United States as a whole has a lot of catching up to do.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we produced 258 million tons of solid waste, and 136 millions of those tons were sent to landfills.  Multiple states, including Michigan, have gone so far as to ban plastic bag bans.  They have prohibited the creation of legislation that regulates “the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers.”  Supporters of this law often consider themselves to be protecting businesses from having to make changes that disturb regular operations.  The question is whether or not it is worth it.  Is it worth accepting the harm caused by plastic bags in order to prevent businesses from being inconvenienced?

What We Can Do

While the average person cannot do very much about the landfills that already exist, we can help by not adding to them and limiting our waste.  Half of all plastic that is produced is only meant to be used once.  This leads to an enormous amount of plastic destined for landfills, even if we disregard any that could potentially be recycled.  Cling wrap.  Candy bar wrappers.  Ziploc bags.  The list goes on.

A lot of it (if not all of it) is completely unnecessary.  Take it from Lauren Singer.  She has minimized her waste production to the point of being able to fit all the trash she could not compost or recycle from four years of her life into a single mason jar.  She promotes the “zero waste” lifestyle through many different media, such as her blog, Trash Is For Tossers.  According to Singer, being zero waste means to “…not produce any garbage.  No sending anything to the landfill, no throwing anything into a trash can…”

How does she do it?  Through her blog, Singer has offered a lot of information on how to work towards living a zero waste life.  For example, to replace plastic toothbrushes, she recommends opting for a bamboo one, which can be composted when the bristles are removed.  Instead of buying all-purpose household cleaner, she suggests making your own, which is often cheaper and healthier for you to use.  Additionally, single use menstrual hygiene products can be replaced with washable and reusable options, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads.

Many people who are part of the zero waste community abide by the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle.

The Five Rs

1) Refuse.  Do your best not to accept things that are unnecessary or that will end up being thrown away.  Before accepting that free pen, think twice about how much you actually need another one.

2) Reduce.  Try decreasing the amount of stuff you bring home, especially if you are only going to use it once.  Consider buying products that have multiple uses and/or can be bought in bulk.  This leads to less plastic and is often less expensive.

3) Reuse.  Buy items of higher quality that can be washed and reused repeatedly, such as a stainless-steel water bottle.  Bring your own cutlery instead of using plastic ones.

4) Rot.  Compost anything you can.  Here you can learn about how to start your own compost and about what can be composted.

5) Recycle.  While it is good to recycle anything you can, it is important to note that it is at the end of the list.  Strive to find the need to recycle as little as possible, especially when it comes to plastic.  It still involves buying more disposables that will most likely end up in a dump (or worse).

If you decide to try out being zero waste for yourself, please remember that it is not about being perfect.  It is about doing the most you can to maximize the positive impact you have on the world.

The ‘Invisible’ Killer

Simply because you cannot see air pollution, does not mean air pollution does not exists.  Often, pressing issues such as air pollution and other environmental problems such as soil contamination are dismissed because the effects of pollution are not always tangible until extreme environmental disasters occur. On December 5, 1952 the residents of London, England suffered  five days of devastating toxic clouds known as the Great Smog. Various factors contributed to the creation of the smog, daunting the city of London. First, London, England was a manufacturing city utilizing coal for industrial purposes. Second, residents used coal in household heaters to brace against the December cold. Exacerbated by acrid black smoke from millions of chimneys and manufacturing plants, “a high-pressure weather system had stalled over southern England and caused a temperature inversion, in which a layer of warm air high above the surface trapped the stagnant, cold air at ground level. The temperature inversion prevented London’s sulfurous coal smoke from rising, and with nary a breeze to be found, there was no wind to disperse the soot-laden smog.”

Trafalgar Square. Source: Leonard Bentley, Creative Commons

The consequences of this event were immense, as an estimated 4,000 people died due to health conditions, such as bronchitis and pneumonia which increased more than seven-fold in the immediate aftermath of this environmental disaster.

Outdoor Air Pollution
The Great Smog is one consequence of extreme environmental pollution. In the subsequent 60 years+ since the Great Smog, countries over the world such as China and India continue to bare the effects of both outdoor and indoor air pollution on the health communities. The effects of air pollution on the health of populations is a human rights issue; it essentially affects one’s right to health and life. Numerous epidemiological studies formally recognize the negative effects of air pollution on human health. In 2013, air pollution was officially classified as a cause of lung cancer by World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).  WHO finds “the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 6.5 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.” And more specifically, the WHO states ambient air pollution globally causes:

1) 25% of all deaths and diseases from lung cancer,

2) 17% of all deaths and diseases from acute lower respiratory infection,

3) 16% of all deaths from stroke internationally,

4) 15% of all deaths and disease from ischemic heart disease, and

5) 8% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Human activity is a driving force behind air pollution. Human activities contributing to air pollution include industrial facilities such as manufacturing companies, power generation such as coal plants, fuel combustion from motor vehicles, and waste burning.

The morbidity and mortality contact to air pollution causes globally emphasizes how our personal contributions to air pollution not only harms us individually but also affects everybody else on this earth. Air pollution wasn’t caused by one entity, but rather accumulate to dangerous levels due to the actions of people from every single part of the world. Optimistically, there are plentiful habits people can change in their lives to promote cleaner air. On a community level, individuals can participate in carpooling to places such as school or work to reduce toxic emission from transportation, eliminating waste generation by not using plastic materials and recycling to prevent potential waste burning, and even supporting local community groups that address pollution concerns by volunteering. Education is also another tool that is needed to decrease levels of air pollution. Communities may not be aware of the consequences of exposure to air pollution. Educating communities about methods to decrease the production of pollution empowers people to improve and protect the health of their communities. As people, we will need to continue to work together to combat air pollution, educate communities, and implement sustainable life style changes.

Activists gather to demand clean air as Edinburgh Air Pollution Zone to be expanded. Source: Friends of the Earth Scotland, Creative Commons.

Indoor Air Pollution
Even though air pollution impacts the entire global community, lower income communities are at greater risk of exposure to indoor air pollution (IAP). The World Health Organization states “3 billion people cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (i.e. wood, charcoal, coal, dung, crop wastes) on open fires or traditional stoves. Such inefficient cooking and heating practices produce high levels of household (indoor) air pollution which includes a range of health damaging pollutants such as fine particles and carbon monoxide.” As a result, 4.3 million deaths may be accredited to the negative health impacts of household air pollution annually.

Exposure to air pollution is inequitable. Rural and lower socioeconomic communities do not have access to sufficient stoves, energy and indoor ventilation, creating disproportionally exposure to household indoor and potential negative health effects. WHO finds approximately 90% of the 3 million premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution transpired in low- and middle-income countries. Furthermore, the highest burden of outdoor air pollution occurred in the WHO Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions. Additionally, in 2000 60% of IAP induced deaths affected women. Women are at greater risk for exposure to IAP due to being responsible for cooking, and household duties. Finally, young and newborn children are a vulnerable population and at greater risk for exposure to household pollution due to being with their mothers while she cooks and preforms other daily activities.

Disparities in the USA
Air pollution disproportionally effects lower income countries and populations. However, environmental injustice is not a foreign concept for low income minority communities all over the United States of America regardless of policies such as the Clean Air Act. Marginalized Americans continue to bear the consequences of environmental racism – “the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.” A nationwide environmental research study highlights black, Hispanic and low income students are at greater risk to exposure to harmful toxins in school. The research found:

1) African American students make up 16% of US public school students, yet, more than 25% of those students attend schools worst affected by air pollution,

2) white school children account for 52% of all US public school attendees, however, only 28% of those white students attend schools worst affected by air pollution,

3) schools with large student of color population are located near busy roads, factories and other major sources of air pollution, and

4) five of the ten worst polluted school counties contain a non-white student populations greater than 20%.

This is just one example of lower income communities experience inequitable consequences of air pollution in the US. Other prominent examples of the negative health impacts of air pollution on minority and low income communities include Cancer Alley in Louisiana and the Anniston Community Health Survey. Epidemiological studies strongly support the relationship between health and air pollution.

Smog Zone. Source: Chris Davies, Creative Commons.

Ultimately, the health and overall quality of life of communities should not be jeopardized based on socioeconomic status, gender, age and race. GASP, a local Birmingham non-profit, is an important stakeholder in keeping our Birmingham communities air clean. GASP is a local advocate for clean air by:

1) monitoring, reporting and documenting air quality issues,

2) raising awareness of the health effects of air pollution on childhood health outcomes,

3) empowering and better educating local community member on advocacy skills for clean air, and

4) promoting environmental justice through policy change. More information such as contact information is available on their website. Protecting and promoting our environmental health is a community effort.

Organizations like GASP are important in ensuring all American citizens have equal rights to health and life without discrimination. As a community we need to continue to supporting community advocacy and education initiatives about air pollution, as they are major stakeholders in the success of environmental improvement. A healthy and clean environment is possible if we continue to work together.