Environmental Racism as a Public Health Issue | By: Emeka Ezeokoli

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Four years have passed since the last election was held to determine the candidate most worthy of occupying the highest political office in the United States of America. Since then the disproportionate deaths of Black people at the hands of police (most notably the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and most recently Sandra Bland) became a central issue in a national conversation about race and policing and was the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement which in turn became the impetus for increased community mobilization around issues like police brutality and mass incarceration.

The youth led movement has been responsible for putting political pressure on 2016 presidential candidates to confront an issue traditionally ignored by mainstream media outlets that disproportionately affects voters from marginalized communities of color. But the concerns of voters from these communities transcend the most overt forms of state sanctioned violence (police brutality and mass incarceration) and include less visible effects of institutionalized racism that are so subtle so as to be nearly imperceptible, but nonetheless have dangerous and devastating implications and harmful generational effects on the community residents and therefore, environmental racism must be addressed on the national stage by any candidate who considers themselves a serious contender for the presidency.

One of the most inconspicuous public health issues facing Black people is the quality of air in urban communities. While global warming predominates the discussion on environmental issues, the effects of what has been termed “environmental racism” has negatively impacted residents in the more resource deprived and impoverished communities in America for decades. As defined on the website http://www.ejnet.org environmental racism is “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color”. In a film entitled Straight Outta Hunter’s Point–a documentary about a marginalized San Francisco neighborhood in California–physician and community activist Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai delineates the catastrophic effects that high toxicity levels in the air has on the health of Hunter’s Point residents. “One of the greatest risks to this community arises from the potential for exposure to radiation that exists on this shipyard. Additionally there are other toxins like lead, and asbestos and manganese. There are the toxic gases that I talked about, the volatile organic compounds. There’s diesel, there’s petroleum, there are toxins in the environment in the Bayview Hunters Point community that are directly contributing to the high incidents of diseases like childhood asthma, adult respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure, and pulmonary asbestos.” She goes on to state that increased rates of breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer are also byproducts of rising toxicity levels in the area. For this reason, whether its Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson or Rand Paul, or any of the third party candidates, it is necessary for us to demand a detailed and strategic plan for reducing the toxicity levels in the air and water in urban communities of color from all political candidates vying for the national office in 2016.

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