Tag Archives: pollution
The Gulf oil spill that has been capturing the news cycle in the United States for the last few months finally appears to be under control, and now we’re faced with a common problem: We have a whole lot of waste from the spill and associated cleanup, and it needs to go somewhere. This includes crude oil, equipment used by cleanup crews, soiled booms, and all kinds of other spill-associated detritus.
According to a story published at Colorlines last week, nine landfills in the Gulf region have been selected as sites for disposing of waste. Waste management authorities claim the material isn’t toxic, which means that regular municipal landfills, rather than landfills specifically designed to handle hazardous waste, are being used. Of the nine landfills chosen, five are located in low income communities of colour.
This is not a coincidence. While it is true that there are a number of primarily nonwhite communities in the Gulf, and that many of these communities are also low income, thus making it statistically more probable that at least some of the waste would end up in such communities, this case is clearly an example of environmental racism. There is a very long history in the United States of pushing unwanted toxic waste into low income communities in general, and communities with large nonwhite populations in particular.
There have been rumblings over the last few months about where BP is putting the oil spill waste, and most of those rumblings have focused on outraged white communities. This distracts neatly from the far more serious issue, the fact that most of this waste would end up in nonwhite communities, and that these communities would experience serious long term consequences. Focusing on white communities also allows the media to completely ignore the overt racism involved in deciding where potentially toxic waste ends up.
From the start, the oil spill has disproportionately impacted people of colour. Many of the cleanup workers were people of colour, and BP also used primarily nonwhite prison labour in oil spill cleanup and tried to hide it. Now, with the spill cleanup winding down, waste from the spill is being dumped on nonwhite communities even as these communities struggle to recover economically from the impacts of the spill. They can look forward to leaching of oil and chemicals from their landfills in the coming decades, and reports on the ground also indicate that the waste is already poorly controlled, with oil slicks and tarballs showing up around communities being used as dumping sites.
Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why were cleanup workers wearing protective suits? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why are people who have been exposed to it getting sick? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why is care being taken to ensure it doesn’t end up in privileged communities?
Crude oil can contain things like benzene, chromium, mercury, sulfur, toluene, and xylene. These substances are known to have deleterious effects on human health; at the very least, skin irritation and difficulty breathing. The oil spill waste also contains traces of dispersants, known to be toxic. And the government wants to stand by the claim that the waste isn’t toxic? Dumping these waste in facilities poorly equipped to handle it will result in long term environmental repercussions, in addition to human health problems.
I’ve written here before about how hazardous waste disposal methods tend to disproportionately impact communities of colour, and how they are most definitely a disability rights issue. Environmental pollution is a disability rights issue, and it’s a social justice issue. Toxic waste makes people sick. Making people sick is not ok, especially when familiar patterns of oppression can be seen in who is exposed to the greatest risks. If this waste is nontoxic, surely it can go in any landfill, and it would make sense to use landfills as close to the coast as possible, right? So the waste travels the shortest distance? What exactly was the selection process behind the nine landfills identified as sites for Gulf spill waste?
BP, like other major oil companies, has a long history of engaging in environmental pollution, including unauthorized dumping of materials known to be toxic. The vast majority of this pollution occurs in communities least equipped to fight it, and when oil companies are caught doing it, often the biggest punishment is a relatively small fine. In this case, BP isn’t being clandestine: the company is being openly invited to dump waste. The claim is that it’s ‘nonhazardous,’ but is it? Even if it’s not toxic, is it really the kind of thing we want leaching out of landfills and into waterways and farmlands?
These communities will be dealing with the repercussions of BP’s dumping well into the future, just like communities all over the world where people are sickening and dying because of toxic materials present in the environment. Just like communities where rates of chromosomal anomalies are skyrocketing as a result of exposure to toxic substances. Communities with limited support systems to help sick and disabled community members are the ones disproportionately facing an increase in chronic conditions and disabilities. A long term policy of dumping toxic pollutants on low income nonwhite communities and refusing to provide support for the consequences sends a pretty clear message to members of those communities, as well as to the rest of society.
We need to be talking about the connection between environmental pollution and racism and we need to be combating plans to dump hazardous waste on low income communities of colour, from protesting clearly racist environmental policy to working in solidarity with communities who are actively fighting toxic waste disposal in their landfills and on their sacred lands.
Starting in the 1990s, cancer rates in China began rising at an astounding rate. By 2007, cancer was accounting for one in five deaths in China. Similarly rapid increases in cancer rates are being seen in many other nations that are in the process of industrialising. Once considered a disease of the industrialised world, cancer is a growing problem in many nations that are struggling to gain a foothold in the global economy, as well as nations that are already well positioned, but still rapidly growing, like China.
A lot of news stories like to blame this on the acquisition of ‘Western habits’ and the ‘Western diet,’ or on smoking. These are, after all, convenient and popular targets for blame in the industrialised world as well. Other studies point to increased life expectancy that increases the chance that people will develop cancers simply by nature of living longer.
However, many of these stories ignore a major hidden contributor to rising cancer rates: environmental pollution.
Industrialising countries tend to have extremely high pollution rates. Environmental pollutants like heavy metals in the water have been clearly and substantively linked with cancer in numerous studies. Air, water, and soil pollution have been associated with a wide range of cancers including breast, liver, stomach, and lung cancers. Need evidence of pollution in China? There’s the Asian brown cloud, a proliferation of e-waste in China, and, of course, the pall cast by coal fired power plants, among many other things.
The tendency to attribute rising cancer rates to personal habits is one that places the responsibility for cancer solely on the individual. It’s easy to see why leaning towards ‘habits’ when it comes to attributing cancer rates is appealing, especially for policy makers and corporations, because it dodges the environmental link and any government or corporate-level responsibility. If cancer can be blamed on people, instead of institutions, it eliminates the need to address environmental causes of cancer, like pollutants that sicken people in their own communities, occupational hazards like workplace exposures to chemicals, and pollutants that disseminate and sicken people far from the source.
Regulation of pollution is erratic and sometimes very lax in rapidly industrialising countries, many of which have ‘economic zones’ of some form or another that are specifically designed to attract foreign companies with lax environmental, labour, and tax laws. Historically, people have presented this as some sort of flaw on the part of the populations and policymakers in these nations, implying that people are greedy for the potential profits of industrialisation, or not very knowledgeable about environmental issues, or that they are susceptible to bribery and thus can’t be trusted to make sound policy.
The truth is actually more complicated. Industrialising nations are subjected to immense pressure from industrialised nations to keep their regulations lax and incomplete and to meet demands from multinational companies to create ‘hospitable’ business climates. Many of these industrialised nations are former colonisers, adding another layer to the situation, and many of these corporations take a role in policymaking and governance which might surprise you, like using armed paramilitary forces to silence human rights advocates, Indigenous people, and communities. Many nations with international trade agreements are pressured by corporations that want to cut down on the costs of production by making products in countries with less stringent environmental and labour laws; look at the maquiladoras that line the United States-Mexico border for an example.
We need only look to BP operating in the United States to see how aggressively corporations resist environmental regulations in industrialised nations. In industrialising nations, which are largely regarded as low-hanging fruit for profit, that resistance is magnified, and corporations are much bolder about pressuring nations to refuse to adopt or change environmental regulations and violating those regulations when they are put in place. The same holds true with labour laws; many companies outsource production to nations with less stringent labour regulations to take advantage of the low, low costs of child and slave labour.
China represents a perfect storm. An industrialising nation with environmental regulations that are not keeping pace with pollution and the rise of vast factory towns where companies from all over the world expect to obtain a source of low-cost labour in a lax regulatory environment. Entire villages are sickening and dying as a result of environmental pollution (link via abcsoupspot). Reporting on China’s ‘cancer villages’ is suppressed, and it’s difficult to estimate the full extent of the phenomenon.
What’s happening in China is also happening in communities all over the world. As concerns about pollution rise and regulators tighten up, which they are doing in China, the pollution doesn’t disappear, it just moves. Sources of pollution such as industrial waste dumps and factories don’t just disappear. These things are still ‘needed.’ They simply move to other locations.
Those locations tend to be impoverished communities. Either they are forced on communities that are not given a choice, or they are actively welcomed by communities in dire need of jobs and income. As goes Xinglong, so goes Kettleman City. There is a long and ignominious history of shunting pollution on to poor communities that are the least equipped to deal with it, the least equipped to protest it, and the least likely to have infrastructures in place for early diagnosis and treatment of pollution-related illnesses. Many of these communities also have big minority populations, with environmental racism coming into play when it comes to deciding where polluting industries should be situated.
Environmental pollution is a global human rights issue, not a problem limited to tree huggers. With pollution comes much, much more than loss of biodiversity, extinction of endangered species, destruction of topsoil, and a host of other specifically environmental problems. Death and disease ride with environmental pollution, just as classism and racism perpetuate and determine which communities will be affected by it.
The Balkans are a hub between East and West. This diverse region of Europe has rippled with conflict for centuries and like other areas repeatedly subjected to violent conflict and military actions, a significant legacy has been left behind. Rates of disability are higher in war torn regions for all the obvious reasons, support is often lacking, and in places like the Balkans the issue is complicated by the consequences of decades and centuries of conflicts between not just enemy nations, but friends and neighbors; as in Rwanda, people are struggling with the psychological aftermath of turning on each other. The toll of war in the Balkans has been immense.
In the 1990s, the Balkans exploded with a series of conflicts as the former Yugoslav republics battled amongst themselves. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened on several occasions in an attempt to bring peace to the Balkans, and they brought a little something extra with them.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a radioactive material made from recycled nuclear fuel. It’s favored by militaries because it is extremely dense, which makes it useful for developing armor penetrating rounds. DU rounds can stop tanks in their tracks and easily penetrate body armor. This makes them immensely popular when the primary goal is stopping power which can be used to bring a conflict to a close quickly. Between 1994 and 1995, the United States Air Force (USAF) alone dropped 2.3 tons of DU ammunition in the Balkans. In 1999, during Operation Allied Force, 10.2 tons of DU were delivered by the USAF to military targets.
Dropping radioactive materials willy nilly may not seem like a wise idea, but numerous military authorities argue that DU poses no threat and can provide ample studies to back up the claim. This despite the fact that DU rounds break up on impact, spreading fine radioactive powder around the areas where they are delivered. When tank penetrating rounds are used, for example, the interior of the tank is covered in radioactive material. In the Balkans, abandoned and radioactive vehicles could still be seen by the side of the road five years after Operation Allied Force was over. Children played in them. Independent research teams have demonstrated that pockets of radioactivity are still present in areas which received large payloads during conflicts in the Balkans.
DU doesn’t stay confined to the area where it was delivered. It penetrates the soil and enters the water and is carried away by the wind. Thus, a radioactive contamination problem in the Balkans is a radioactive contamination problem for neighboring areas as well. Survey teams in the Balkans and neighboring areas have identified radioactive dust in the wind, in groundwater, in surface water, and in soil. While there have been some cleanup efforts, many recommendations suggest that DU should be left in situ because it is not believed to be a risk and disturbing contaminated ground may be more dangerous than cleaning it up.
Tell that to Allied soldiers who worked in the Balkans, who are currently experiencing unusually high rates of cancers, notably lymphoma. French and Italian soldiers are experiencing cancer at rates in excess of the norm. Residents of the Balkans may be facing what has been described as a “cancer epidemic” and DU is certainly one possible cause. In Serbia, unusual rates of chromosomal variations have been documented; radiation exposure is certainly one possible cause and the fact that radiation has been found in Serbian water supplies should certainly give one room for pause, at the very least.
There’s a name for it: They call it Balkan Syndrome.
NATO studies continue to insist that DU does not pose a threat, either to the people who were involved in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans or to the residents of the region. Their studies have primarily focused on soldiers, not residents, and long-term epidemiology studies are hard to find. Things like fertility problems can be difficult to recognize in the immediate wake of a conflict. I would also note that there is a long and established history of military denial of epidemiological trends when those trends look bad for the military.
The continued use of DU munitions is problematic. The fact that cancer rates consistently rise among people exposed to such munitions certainly suggests a very strong correlation which could merit further exploration. It is also notable that reports on the danger of such munitions conflict rather wildly, depending on the source or sponsoring agency of the report, which seems to suggest that more independent oversight would be a wise idea.
For those who trust NATO’s reports and believe that DU is not an issue in the Balkans, something still needs to be done about people with disabilities in the region, including those unusually high numbers of people with cancer and congenital disabilities. And this is complicated by the fact that repeated conflicts created masses of refugees, many of whom had no homes to return to and who were set adrift by conflict as borders were moved and redrawn. Many of these same refugees also experience psychological issues related to war. While the refugee crisis has eased, the aftereffects linger.
Post traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon among survivors of the wars in the Balkans who were refugees, some of whom are also trying to care for young children and disabled family members in a culture where disability is often treated as a sign of moral failing. Some of these children are the result of systematic military rape. Providing intervention is difficult on many levels; there are language and cultural barriers, the lack of fixed and stable homes makes it difficult to follow up, it is difficult to track people for demographic purposes, and it can be challenging to ensure that children have access to consistent education. People who have been refugees are also more likely to experience poverty, which can be a significant barrier to accessing needed services.
As the Balkan states slowly join the European Union, conversations need to shift from where responsibility lies to what we want to do about it. Intervention in the Balkans can only be effective, however, if residents of the region are empowered by it and that intervention remains respectful to cultural and social traditions of the region. Is the EU up to the challenge?
Here are some organisations working in the Balkans on disability issues:
Center for Independent Living Serbia (supported by CARDS)
Association of Disabled Persons (UDAS), Banju Luka, Bosnia
It is difficult to find demographic statistics on Iraq. The population has experienced considerable upheaval as a direct consequence of the war my government started there, and it was already tremendously unstable before the United States invaded in 2003 with the ostensible goal of “fighting terrorism.” Seven years later, we are still in Iraq, and some very alarming health trends are emerging.
Iraq is littered with pollutants, many of which are a direct consequence of military activity. This includes dioxins from sites where materiel was burned, depleted uranium1 from scores of shells fired in the 1991 Gulf War and during the present Gulf War, remains of chemical and biological weapons which have not been properly contained, and pollution from the burning of oil fields. Who can forget the televised images from 1991 showing Iraq’s oil fields on fire because Saddam was so determined to keep them from falling into our hands?
It was a horrific image, not least because the oilfield burning generated pollution which would be making Iraqis sick decades into the future. The pollution in Iraq is also not limited to its borders, because pollutants know no national boundaries. Pollutants are carried along waterways, in the air, and on vehicles exiting Iraq. In other words, although this post is about Iraq, the issues I am discussing here are highly relevant to Iraq’s neighbors.
Rates of cancers in Iraq are skyrocketing, especially childhood cancers. Women experience breast and bladder cancer at rates which are, again, very difficult to estimate, but are known to be much higher than the norm. Numerous recent reports have also illustrated the incredibly rapid rise of genetic conditions caused by exposure to pollutants. Between 2008 and 2009, doctors in Falluja alone observed “15 times as many chronic deformities in infants.” War also has profound impact on mental health and many Iraqis are in need of mental health services.
It’s worth noting that pollution appears to be concentrated in Iraq’s poorest areas. Iraq’s poor are already at a disadvantaged position, and this has been made worse by exposure to pollutants. Problems like asthma are common among people inhaling harmful smoke, for example, and these problems make it difficult to work and support families. Iraqi women in particular are in a difficult position as they are expected to care for their families, get food on the table, and manage the household, whether or not they are sick. Across Iraq, there are very wide gender disparities when it comes to things like access to education, as well; around 84% of Iraqi men were literate in 2000, for example, in contrast with 64% of Iraqi women.
Meanwhile, numerous Iraqis are experiencing amputations as a result of being involved in bombings, and this includes innocent bystanders as well as Iraqi police and military personnel, and of course insurgents. The United States military does provide services like surgery and some rehabilitation to injured Iraqis brought to our military facilities for treatment, which is excellent, but those services are needed because we are there, and legitimate questions can and should be raised about what kind of long term support we are providing for disabled Iraqis. It should also be noted that getting medical attention from the US military can be dangerous; families with children in our care, for example, have faced reprisals from people who assume that they must be aiding the enemy if their children are being cared for. (Even though treatment is provided in military facilities to all who need it.)
Despite a lot of hunting, I could not find a recent and accurate count of the number of people in Iraq living with disabilities. I know it’s high, and I know that the United States government, which controls many services in Iraq, doesn’t have the greatest record on serving disabled Iraqis. In 2004, for example, Iraq’s only hospital serving people with disabilities was basically left to its own devices. We are trying to administer a country while theoretically supporting it so that it can be independent and also managing a war. It’s not working out very well for us.
Iraq’s infrastructure has been repeatedly torn apart after decades of war. Whether or not you think we should be in Iraq now, whether or not you agree with me politically on what is happening in Iraq and what the United States is doing around the world, the consequences of long term war and military occupation are indisputable. Iraq is in desperate need of rebuilding, and that rebuilding needs to include people with disabilities.
The pollution in Iraq is not, of course, solely the fault of the United States and our allies. Under Saddam, environmental controls were not exactly top notch, and Saddam infamously tested weapons on the Kurdish population of Iraq. Those who survived were often left with long term health problems. Improper containment of Iraqi materiel also led to pollution. But, given the fact that Iraq’s government clearly cannot handle the level of environmental cleanup involved, I think that the global community has a responsibility to provide assistance.
Iraq needs a lot of help. What can you do?
If you are a citizen of a country which is involved in Iraq’s reconstruction, you can make it clear to your representatives that you want to see people with disabilities represented in Iraq, and that you are concerned about the availability of health services to Iraqis. This includes everything from the need for rehabilitation facilities for people who have just been injured to basic sanitation in impoverished areas to prevent the spread of parasitic infections. It is also important to stress that the focus of aid needs to be on empowering Iraqis, not just providing services; instead of putting in new wells, we should be teaching Iraqis to put in wells. Likewise, instead of sending in medical personnel from other countries, we should be supporting training of doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation professionals drawn from Iraq’s own population.
You can also push for environmental cleanup in Iraq, along with the cleanup of unexploded ordinance, which poses a serious hazard. This does not necessarily have to be done by governments; there are also private organizations which could assist with cleanup. The Danish Demining Group, for example, has been active in Iraq since 2003.
You can join people in lobbying for tighter controls on the use and cleanup of depleted uranium. Iraq is not the only region of the world struggling with DU contamination; it’s also a big problem in the Balkans.
Finally, if you’re from a country which sent soldiers to Iraq or currently has troops in Iraq, you can advocate at home for disabled service members. Many people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are developing health problems as a result of exposure to the same pollutants which are causing health problems for Iraqis.
Writing letters and lobbying can be hard work, and you may not have the energy for it. Just raising awareness by talking about these issues and linking to posts about this is also an important action.
- Depleted uranium is a nuclear waste product which is utilized in munitions because it is extremely heavy. It’s used for things like armor-piercing shells, and, guess what, it’s radioactive! ↩