The Trump administration has been loosening EPA regulations, cutting and consolidating programs that engage in vital research on the environment and allowing dangerous practices that will have long-term consequences on the quality of our nation’s land, air and waterways. The results of Scott Pruitt’s tenure as Environmental Protection Agency director will be felt most intensely by people of color, adding to the laundry list of reasons black and brown people must vote in force to, respectively, disempower and remove this administration in 2018 and 2020.
A report from Pruitt’s own agency confirms that people of color are “more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air.” The study by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment focused on microscopic airborne pollutants called “particulates.” This microscopic dust and soot typically comes from “automobile fumes, smog, soot, ash and construction dust.” Particulates are linked to asthma, heart attacks, low birth weights, hypertension and even premature death, all of which disproportionately affect African-Americans.
Infant mortality is twice as high for African-Americans as it is for whites, largely because of low birth weight and early birth. African-Americans are more likely to die after a first heart attack. Hypertension rates for African-Americans are “among the highest in the world” at around 40 percent. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, African-American children are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than non-Hispanic white children.
Trump selected Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the agency he threatened to eliminate during his presidential campaign. Climate change not only exists, it’s taking lives — and people of color fall victim to the effects of climate change, such as heat-related illness and death, and other health issues related to or exacerbated by environmental causes at higher rates than non-Hispanic whites. Here are a few examples.
In Baltimore, the talking heads on the nightly TV news love to cite the city’s high homicide rate, particularly among African-American males, but they are conspicuously mum about the effects of climate change on the city. According to an MIT study in 2013, Baltimore has close to 800 deaths per year resulting from pollution, a number that far exceeds its record 2017 homicide rate. Despite scientifically backed claims that automobile fumes are killing people, Pruitt announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would reduce restrictions on vehicle emissions.
Pruitt’s EPA also rejected a claim by the mostly poor African-American residents of Uniontown, Alabama, that a landfill with 4 million tons of coal ash could be responsible for some of the local residents’ health problems. Uniontown sits only 30 miles from Selma, Alabama, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led marches in the face of state-sponsored brutality. However, now when the residents of the 88 percent African-American town get nosebleeds or pounding headaches, it isn’t the result of a thrashing from a state trooper; they blame the landfill’s toxins.
The EPA conducted no studies or formal inquiries into a potential connection between the coal ash and the residents’ health claims, yet determined there was “insufficient evidence” that the existence of the landfill violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Coal ash contains mercury, lead and arsenic, which can attack the nervous and reproductive systems of those who ingest it. The EPA itself says that living within a mile of coal ash can cause a one in 50 chance of developing cancer.
Latinos are more likely to work in industries where the Trump-Pruitt rollbacks will severely impact the quality of human health. For example, Pruitt recently denied a petition to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that can cause brain damage in children. Mexican and Mexican-Americans are the most represented group among farm workers. According to a report on the Environmental Health of Latino Children, “Latino children are disproportionately affected by asthma and the adverse health outcomes associated with pesticide exposure.”
The Pruitt-led EPA is another example of this administration’s war on the most vulnerable members of our society. Its policies send a clear message to people of color: We don’t care if you get cancer or have heart attacks, or if your babies die. Touting job growth, which started trending in the right direction toward the end of the Obama administration, will not mitigate the damage done to the health and wellbeing of people of color and poor people of all backgrounds.
The 2018 midterm elections — and certainly the 2020 presidential election — literally mean life and death for African-American and Latino families across the country. We need a climate change in Washington. The past 15 months of this administration have been far too stormy.
Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow him on Twitter@RealDocSoos.