The Unseen Spill: The Human and Reproductive Health Catastrophe of Toxic “Hot Spots” in the Gulf Region

Kimberly Inez McGuire

Louisiana and the greater Gulf region have long been disproportionately burdened by toxic chemical exposure. Residents have higher rates of cancers and disruption to their reproductive and endocrine systems. The devastation wrought by the newest oil catastrophe is only making an already horrible situation that much worse. The toxic chemical burden experienced by people in the Gulf region is inextricably linked to our nation’s chemical policy, and to the products you and I use every day.

As I learn more about the reproductive health threats posed by toxic chemicals in everyday products, I sometimes find the issue hard to explain to my friends and family. When someone looks at a water bottle, a can of soup, a cash register receipt, an air freshener, or a rubber ducky, they can have trouble believing that these things have chemicals in them that are bad for our health. After all, they don’t smell toxic, they don’t look like “synthetic industrial chemicals”—which I always imagine as the vat of bright green ooze the Joker fell into before he became a villain.

But sometimes, looks can be deceiving.

In other cases, the toxic truth is more plainly visible. Today, I am watching the now-famous live feed of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil “spill” gushing into the Gulf. I am jolted by the power of the image, and the emotional response it evokes. I feel helpless, bewildered, and angry. Why can’t we figure out how to stop this? How far will the effects of the oil reach before we can halt its advance? And most frustratingly—how did we get here?

The story emerging from the headlines is that the spill was the result of a deadly combination of corporate greed and malfeasance and inadequate government oversight, which aggravated the inherent danger of dredging toxic sludge from deep in the earth through a mile of ocean. Still, it is impossible to talk about this most recent devastation in the Gulf without placing it in the context of the region’s disturbing history of environmental racism and injustice.

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For decades, industrial waste and contamination in the Gulf states have been recognized for their role in causing health problems ranging from cancer to asthma. Residents have tested positive for exposure to some of the worst reproductive toxicants—chemicals that have been linked to infertility, miscarriage, low birth weight, low sperm count, and developmental and respiratory disorders for children exposed in utero. This contamination of the air, water, and soil is so severe, and its effects so widespread, that the 100-mile stretch of Louisiana communities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known by residents as “Cancer Alley.”

Louisiana’s Gulf coast and Mississippi River parishes are dotted with what are known in environmental justice parlance as “hot spots.” These communities are overburdened with more than their “fair” share of environmental contamination and resulting health problems. The sources of toxic chemicals in the environment can include chemical plants, power plants, toxic waste dumps, and landfills. In areas of concentrated and continuous toxic chemical exposure, the effects on reproductive health can be devastating, and persist across generations.

Nationwide, these facilities are overwhelmingly concentrated in communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explains:

“[C]orporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities.”

These communities often lack the political connections and clout, legal expertise, and financial resources needed to fight toxic chemical plants. Language may also act as a barrier for non-English speakers. In addition, companies may exploit poverty and joblessness in order to portray themselves as benefiting the towns in which they locate.

Perhaps no town in America better illustrates the “hot spot” phenomenon than Mossville, Louisiana. Mossville is a predominantly African-American community founded over one hundred years ago by former slaves seeking sanctuary from racism. Many families have lived there for generations. This small town of approximately 400 households is besieged by 14 industrial facilities that annually dump more than 4 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the local community. The immediate area has the largest concentration of vinyl plastic manufacturers in the U.S., as well as a coal-fired power plant, oil refineries, and other chemical production facilities. Residents have been found to have elevated levels of cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting chemicals in their bodies, including levels of dioxin at 3 times the national average. Residents also report high rates of reproductive and other chronic and acute health problems.

Mossville is not alone. An Environmental Protection Agency risk-screening model that ranks every county in the nation for chronic human health risks places 10 Louisiana parishes in the list of the top 200 most environmentally hazardous counties in the nation. Several of the parishes with the worst rankings are distributed along the Mississippi River industrial corridor and in other locations with high concentration of industry.

In New Orleans, “natural disasters” like Hurricane Katrina have been made worse by the widespread presence of industrial chemical plants. Reports about Katrina focused on the storm, flooding, physical destruction, and displacement. However, toxic chemicals from industrial contamination continue to shape the long-term health and environmental impact of this event. For example, the floodwaters deposited a layer of sediment up to 4 inches thick on the ground, in homes, and over nearly everything the water touched.

When NRDC and New-Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights tested samples of this sediment, they found heavy metals, petroleum, pesticides, and cancer-causing industrial chemicals. Gulf residents were also endangered by the very relief efforts meant to help them, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided displaced survivors with the infamous formaldehyde-tainted trailers. Formaldehyde, which causes cancer and triggers asthma, was leaching out of the trailers’ building materials and poisoning the air inside. Where are these toxic trailers now? They’re being used to house oil clean-up workers in Louisiana.

There can be no question that Louisiana and the greater Gulf region have long been disproportionately burdened by toxic chemical exposure and that the devastation wrought by the oil is making a bad situation much worse. Moreover, the toxic chemical burden experienced by people in the Gulf region is inextricably linked to our nation’s chemical policy, and to the products you and I use every day.

Regardless of where you live, it is almost certain that your home, like mine, is filled with everyday products that contain toxic chemicals. It could be furniture laced with formaldehyde. It could even be a toxic vinyl shower curtain made from a chemical plant in Mossville. As long as companies are allowed to put toxic chemicals in everyday products, those companies will keep building and operating toxic facilities. They will continue to locate those facilities in low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color. And, those chemical companies will continue to sell the same toxic products to the communities they’re already harming, and everybody else.

As I look again at the live feed of the oil, it occurs to me that one reason this phenomenon is so captivating is that we can plainly see it—the oil itself and the harm it’s doing. Captivating indeed, and infuriating, because we have not been able to do anything to stop it. In contrast, while toxic chemicals in our homes and workplaces may not be easy to see and identify, I am comforted to know that there is something we can do to stop them.

We need national reform that will require companies to prove that chemicals in our everyday products are safe, protect workers from dangerous chemicals in the workplace, consider the health of vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women, and reduce the toxic chemical burdens of people who live in “hot spot” communities. Thankfully, the House and Senate have introduced legislation to do just that.

Cleaning up toxic chemicals will not dismantle the complex, systemic injustices experienced by residents of towns like New Orleans and Mossville, nor will it transform our nation’s dependence on dangerous energy sources that threaten our health and the environment. However, chemical policy reform will significantly reduce the disproportionate toxic chemical exposure in marginalized communities and will have immediate, tangible benefits for all Americans by making our homes safer, our workplaces cleaner, and our families healthier.

We have to tell Congress, “The time is now.”

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