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Racially Biased Toxic Waste Dumping in the South: A Factor in Infant Mortality?

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McCamy Taylor Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Aug-14-07 11:46 AM
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Racially Biased Toxic Waste Dumping in the South: A Factor in Infant Mortality?
Recently the New York Times wrote about the nation's infant mortality crisis in southern African-Americans communities.

Whether the rises continue or not, federal officials say, rates have stagnated in the Deep South at levels well above the national average. Most striking, here and throughout the country, is the large racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1.

There have been many causes suggested for this epidemic of infant mortality. The problem may well be multi-factorial. One problem that needs to be considered is our nation's long history of dumping toxic waste in parts of the south where African-Americans live.

In Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality Robert D. Bullard describes how predominantly African-American areas of the South came to targeted by polluting industries.
Many industrial firms especially waste disposal companies and industries that have a long history of pollution violations, came to view the black community as a "pushover lacking community organization, environmental consciousness, and with strong and blind pro-business politics."<26> These communities were ripe for exploitation. Residents of economically impoverished areas---intimidated by big corporations and deserted by local politicians---were slow to challenge private and governmental polluters of their neighborhoods. Moreover, the strong projobs stance, a kind of "don't bite the hand that feeds you" sentiment, aided in institutionalizing risks at levels that are unacceptable in the larger society.

Growing empirical evidence shows that toxic-waste dumps, municipal landfills, garbage incinerators, and similar noxious facilities are not randomly scattered across the American landscape. The siting process has resulted in minority neighborhoods (regardless of class) carrying a greater burden of localized costs than either affluent or poor white neighborhoods. Differential access to power and decision making found among black and white communities also institutionalizes siting disparities.

How does this affect infant mortality? I will refer to only one of the many common toxins which are encountered in a typical contaminated site, PCBs, used as a cooling or insulating fluid for industrial transformer or capacitors, their manufacture and use was all but banned in the 1970s and 80s, however, because of the nature of these compounds, they persist in toxic waste dumps to this day.

PCBs are carcinogens. They have also been linked to reproductive problems including stillbirth and early infant death in the case of Taiwanese women poisoned with oil laced with PCBs and followed for years ( Menstruation and Reproduction in Women with PCB poisoning: Long Term Follow-Up Interviews of the Women from the Taiwan Yucheng Cohort, from International Journal Epidemiology 2000). A study done in the US has shown that living in a zip code where there is a toxic waste dump known to contain PCBs increases a woman's chance of having a low birth weight infant. (Full text of article available via link below)

There are several ways that people can come into contact with PCBs. One way is through the diet. Fish caught from contaminated waters concentrate the chemicals and can poison if they are consumed. Persons who have poor nutrition, perhaps for economic reasons and who are dependent upon locally caught fish as a protein source may be at increased risk for PCB poisoning through this route.

Fish are not the only way that people come into contact with PCBs. Another report, called "Risk Assessment of PCBs at Hazardous Waste Sites" put out by Cal EPA in 2003 mentions that at some sites soil levels have been high enough that indoor residential air has had high levels of the chemicals.

Now consider an African-American community, where the soil may be contaminated with PCBs from a toxic waste dump that operated in the 1960s and early 70s. If it is located in the South, there is likely to be some kind of area lake or body of water for drainage. Fishing for recreation and as a source of food is popular in the south. So are outdoor sports like swimming in fresh water, team sports like softball, basketball and other games which children play for most of the year since the weather is mild. Parks built around a body of water like a lake are a preferred community meeting ground.

If the women who have grown up in this community have eaten the local fish and have gone swimming in the local river or lake and have played games in the dirt, they have accumulated a dose of PCB, which will affect them when they get pregnant. And, being members of a minority community, they are also at risk for having fewer job opportunities, less access to health insurance and less access to state of the art obstetric care---which they need even more than other women since their toxic chemical exposure has increased their risk of pregnancy complications.

And PCBs are just one of many toxic chemicals that can be found in waste dumps.

Our current system of allocating prenatal health care as a kind of luxury item--if you have the money, you can get deluxe prenatal care, if you don't, you get bare bones or no care--makes absolutely no sense from a public health or social justice perspective. The women whom society has put at the most risk by literally shitting in their communities, need to be offered the most in terms of prenatal prevention. At the same time, efforts need to be stepped up to identify and clean up toxic areas and to warn residents of the environmental dangers in which they live.

There are undoubtedly other factors at play in the African-American infant mortality epidemic. Lack of equal access to health care may be a major factor. However given what the research has shown so far, it is inconceivable that environmental toxins are not at least partly to blame. Efforts to cast all the blame on the women themselves, by portraying them as lax in seeking prenatal care are just more "blame the victim" rhetoric from a government that would rather protect business interests than look after the wellbeing of citizens whom it considers "second class."
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corbett Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Aug-14-07 01:49 PM
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1. NYT Is Correct
We had an example of his just recently on the northwest side of Orlando.
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Aug-14-07 01:52 PM
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2. I would predict it's more economic-class biased.
Of course, race and economic class are unfortunately correlated. But industrial waste generally finds its way to areas that are too poor to indulge in nimby-ism. And rural enough to be disposed of under the radar.
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One_Life_To_Give Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-15-07 09:16 AM
Response to Reply #2
4. New devlopments by class, but legacy
Today it probably wouldn't be any easier to set up a waste dump in a poor minority neighborhood. But that wasn't always the case and facilities that were originally sited decades ago may well reflect the historic lack of power in minority areas.
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Buzz Clik Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Aug-14-07 06:58 PM
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3. This is a common phenomenon -- hideous nonetheless.
Industry or the government needs a place to dump waste. They look around, and get resistance everywhere they turn, except in areas where people are too busy, too poor, and far too underrepresented to keep it from happening.

Successful resistance often falls under the heading of Environmental Justice.
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CabalPowered Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-15-07 09:28 AM
Response to Original message
5. Bullard's piece is an excellent read
I also like Collins' "Where did all the blue skies go". It has a treasure trove of information on Environment Justice.

Good post. :thumbsup:
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SIMPLYB1980 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-15-07 09:55 AM
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6. So sad!
Edited on Wed Aug-15-07 09:56 AM by SIMPLYB1980
It's not just a problem for the African-American community. Though they bear a disproportional share of the burden. In the South. Growing up down stream from a textile plat will teach you that. Several times in my youth, the company "Danalex" had a "SPILL" into our creek that would turn it blood red and kill every fish, crayfish, deer, possum, rabbits, pets, ect... that drank or lived in it.
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moc Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-15-07 10:40 AM
Response to Original message
7. The link you need is to preterm birth.
A large part of the disparity in infant mortality is due to higher rates of preterm birth among African Americans. Virtually all of the reduction in infant mortality in the last 30+ years has been due to reductions in birth weight specific mortality - i.e., we've gotten better at saving small babies. However, the preterm birth rate is increasing. So, we're better at saving small babies but no better at preventing their birth to begin with.

I don't know whether environmental toxins have been looked at or not. However, my point is that the link of interest is between environmental exposure and preterm birth specifically.
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McCamy Taylor Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-15-07 02:41 PM
Response to Reply #7
8. PCBs stimulate uterine contractions and preterm labor plus other effects

"Exposure to PCBs can trigger premature labor; PCBs make the uterus more likely to contract.

"prenatal PCB exposures have been associated with prematurity, decrements in birth weight and gestation time, and behavioral and developmental deficits in later infancy and childhood, including decrements in IQ"

"A study of 242 pregnant women who consumed Lake Michigan fish was conducted. These fish are known to be contaminated with PCB's. The study tested to see if PCB levels in cord serum, materal serum, and milk were correlated with contaminated fish. It was found that consumption of fish was correlated with PCB levels in materal serum and milk. PCB serum levels increased with age. (Schwartz et al 1983). The infants born to women who consumed contaminated fish were 160 to 190 grams lighter on average than controls. The infant's head circumference was 0.6 to 0.7 cm smaller than controls. (Fein et al 1984)"

"A study on female rats exposed the rats orally to PCBs for one month. This exposure had deleterious effects on the reproduction. Estrous cycles were prolonged, sexual receptivity decreased, and vaginal bleeding occurred during gestation. The rats also had smaller sized litters. The offspring of these rats showed a slower rate of weight gain than controls, and higher mortality."

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