One fact becomes inescapable when looking at health statistics in the United States; low-income people, particularly people of colour and nonwhite people, tend to be less healthy overall. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of which can be seen illustrated in the statistics themselves, and one particularly pressing issue is the extremely high rate of disease, disability, and mortality associated with environmental contamination. Being poor puts you in a position where you are much more likely to be exposed to something that will harm or kill you, create fertility problems, or leave a nasty genetic legacy in its wake.
Poor people are more likely to work in conditions that are dangerous, because hazardous work environments tend to pay lower wages; it is poor people who spray pesticides on fields, who work in chemical plants, who perform other dirty and dangerous jobs. Immigrants are particularly heavily employed in such settings, and those without documentation have little legal recourse when it comes to addressing work-associated injuries and illnesses. They are also not informed of their rights, which explains, for example, why field workers spraying grapes may not even have basic facial protections to reduce the risk of injury, because they don’t know what’s available and are afraid to ask. And why people handling dangerous chemicals may not know how to respond to spills, because no one has trained them.
Workplace safety isn’t the only thing that exposes low-income people to a greater risk of environmental illness, because the risks persist when they go home. Polluting industries are more likely to be located in or near low-income communities, because they are the least likely to be able to fight back. They are less likely to report pollution violations. When they attempt to attract media attention if they do experience things like cancer clusters, they are less likely to be taken seriously and given airtime, because they don’t offer the same media punch as a middle class or wealthy community filled with white people.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even a casual glance at health statistics shows that environmental illness is a huge problem for these communities and that it should be addressed. Mapping polluting factories and industries against census data also reveals some pretty inescapable conclusions that should be evident to regulators and government agencies charged with tracking these things. Finding this information is not at all difficult, and clearly demonstrable links are equally obvious. This is not a case of correlation being mistaken for causation, in other words.
Yet, limited regulatory and social action has been taken on the issue, and many white consumers are not aware of the role they play in environmental classism and racism, how the products they buy can contribute to health problems for communities around the country. Concern on the subject is regarded as primarily a thing for environmentalists, rather than an overall social issue.
I was reminded of this recently when I was at the grocery store buying yeast. I had several options to pick from, and was mulling them over in terms of price and performance, but also company ethics. I resolutely refuse to buy Red Star Yeast because the Oakland factory has been fingered for scores of environmental quality violations, and there is a serious asthma cluster in the low-income community surrounding the factory. Evidence strongly points at factory emissions as the culprit, and I dislike the idea of giving people asthma so I can bake bread. Yet, my alternative was Fleischmann’s, which is also infamous for pollution. The other kinds of yeast available weren’t types I needed.
As a consumer, I was left with two bad choices, both of which would directly contribute to human and environmental harm. And I dislike being put in that position, very strongly. It’s also a position I find myself in more and more, not just with regards to yeast but food products in general, and with other things. If I want strawberries, for instance, I don’t want to buy strawberries grown and exported because of pollution, pesticides, and the large overall environmental footprint. But I don’t want domestic strawberries either, because of the substantial worker abuse that occurs in strawberry fields. Fortunately I have access to locally and ethically grown strawberries in the summer, but this isn’t an option for all consumers.
I’m regularly forced to directly contribute to companies which damage the environment, exploit their workers, and routinely flaunt regulations with few to no penalties. Enforcement is clearly not keeping pace with abuses, and the fines and other punishments are inadequate because these companies are quite happy to break the law. Clearly, the cost of breaking the law is not high enough, and it’s time to change that, for regulators to actually do their jobs and create a system with real consequences for violators.
Regulators are charged with keeping working conditions safe, and with protecting the environment, and they’re failing on the job. A consumer revolt is hard to orchestrate because when you say ‘don’t buy things produced in a way that promotes suffering,’ that means some people may not be able to buy anything, because everything seems to involve human or environmental harm. I can ask the grocery store for yeast with a lower environmental impact, but they may or may not be able to stock it and keep it in stock, and the price might be too high for other shoppers. Capitalism has forced us into a maze of bad choices.
This is not just an ethics issue or an environmental one: It’s a simple public health problem. People are getting sick because preventable conditions are not being addressed. There’s no reason these conditions should be tolerated, except that the populations affected by them aren’t considered fully human, and thus aren’t worthy of regulatory consideration. Were persistent environmental health problems an issue in white communities, in middle class communities, regulators would be working overtime to resolve them.