What are Environmental Justice Communities and how can Laboratory Testing Protect the Most Vulnerable?

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.

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By Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Federal Policy Analyst, WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Choices. One of the most difficult choices my 4-year old had to make before starting school was which bookbag she wanted. It was a close call between the shiny Dora bookbag with the pink and purple zippers or one of her favorite Disney princesses. As a mom, however, there are slightly more difficult choices I have to make.

What are Environmental Justice Communities and how can Laboratory Testing Protect the Most Vulnerable? | www.aphlblog.org

My choices are based on keeping my children safe, happy and healthy. So when I found out that many of the products I typically purchased for my daughter – like the Dora bookbag – were made from chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), I grew concerned. The chemicals found in these products commonly sold in variety stores, or price-point retailers that sell inexpensive items with a single price for all or most of the items in the store, are linked to adverse reproductive and neurodevelopment health outcomes, as well as higher predisposition to diabetes and asthma. While avoiding EVERY hazardous product is unrealistic, having the choice – as well as the resources and knowledge to make informed choices – is key. But not everyone has that choice or access to this knowledge.

Environmental justice (EJ) communities are usually described as communities of color and/or low income communities that are disproportionately burdened with environmental pollution. Members of EJ communities are often the same people exposed to potentially unhealthy products. Residents’ choices are limited to products sold at these retail establishments, such as local variety store or bodegas, due to financial and transportation barriers. At the same time, members of EJ communities are often unaware of the health consequences of their product choices.

As a Federal Policy Analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, I have the opportunity to work on multiple environmental issues that disproportionately impact communities of color and/or low income communities. While the specific issue of toxic exposures from consumer goods has typically been omitted from the traditional definition of EJ, it is now more important than ever that we make these connections, especially in a world where cumulative impacts and risks are becoming an integral part of analyzing risk.

So the question becomes: are communities of color, and/or low income communities more exposed to hazardous consumer goods than communities with a different socio-demographic profile? To begin answering this question, WE ACT’s environmental health team engaged in a community-academic partnership to quantify the proliferation of toxic chemicals in northern Manhattan, NY. WE ACT created a database of businesses that sell products that typically contain hazardous ingredients – such as skin-lightening cream and hair relaxers – that target EJ communities.

This is not a concern limited to the northern Manhattan communities, but communities across the US. Many national coalitions are forming across the country to raise awareness about consumer products that contain potentially-toxic chemicals. Additional concerns surround chemicals used in certain industries – like hair and nail salons – where minorities are exposed to toxic fumes daily without proper ventilation. Although we can speculate that some communities are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals, the ability to quantify the exposures to research on the potential health impacts remains critical.

While efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other non-governmental organizations aim to protect EJ communities from environmental hazards, limited research compares the health impacts of consumer goods and the exposure profile of communities that face EJ issues to other communities.  It is very important that researchers answer some of these concerns with hard data. By testing common products for potentially-toxic chemicals, especially products sold in variety stores, we can inform community members and advocate for better choices.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), enacted in 1976, is one of the laws that serve as the primary source of protection for human health related to consumer products. Revisions to TSCA are currently underway in Congress, with many members of the EJ community and national coalitions fighting to ensure that the revisions reflect their concerns and codify the solutions needed to address the particular sensitivity of EJ communities such as cumulative risk. Comprehensive chemical policies at the federal level combined with consumer products testing can change the landscape of the market. APHL aims to promote good laboratory practice and data quality for consumer product testing. To join APHL in a discussion on environmental justice and consumer product testing, please visit the Meeting Community Environmental Health Needs webpage. This site aims to help you navigate the system, while ultimately improving the governmental environmental health system, while ultimately improving that very same system for other concerned communities.

To learn more about Achieving Environmental Justice through public health laboratory practice, visit the Fall 2012 issue of APHL’s Lab Matters magazine.

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