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Chicago’s history of pollution shows how environmental racism harms everyone

Chicago’s history of pollution shows how environmental racism harms everyone

The latest IPCC report shows growing awareness in the scientific community around the importance of environmental justice. However, the White House’s plan to fight environmental racism without the term “race” is conflicting with calls for justice by not calling out the connection between pollution and race.

Failure to acknowledge environmental racism will harm everyone, and the city of Chicago’s history of pollution can serve as a prime example. Chicago is home to EPA Superfund sites–many still carry the ghosts of corporate oversight. “The Toxic Doughnut”, or Altgeld Gardens in South Side, Chicago, is the poster child of environmental racism. This neighborhood was meant to be one of many improved housing havens for Black veterans returning from World War II to finally own a home. Yet, the neighborhood is surrounded by toxic industries, including landfills and sewage treatment plants. As discovered by Hazel Johnson, known as the mother of environmental justice and former resident of Altgeld Gardens, who lost her husband to cancer when she was 34, local residents have had higher cancer rates and toxin-related diseases and deaths than other Chicagoland areas.

Before the “Toxic Doughnut” was the Lindsay Light and Chemical Company, also known as the  The Kerr-McGee Superfund site in West Chicago, that had strewn radioactive thorium mill tailings across Streeterville. From 1902-1936, the company provided radioactive mill tailings to employees to fill their backyards at a time when the health effects of environmental pollution were not widely known. Jennifer Fawell from a prominent political family in DuPage county filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee in 1986 after contracting Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and two years later she settled out of court under undisclosed terms. She passed away in 1992 at the age of 34.

Fawell and Johnson belonged to two different races, but their shared suffering demonstrates the futility in trying to apply zero sum game politics to environmental racism in America. As communities on the frontlines of pollution contend with the possibilities of toxic tap water, the toxins they fear have upstream and downstream effects. Lower-income Americans suffer the direct health consequences of pollution and on-the-job toxic exposures. At the same time, more affluent Americans will carry their own toxin burden related to dietary and environmental exposures, and employers most concerned about the bottom line will be adversely impacted by an unhealthy workforce once staff falls ill from preventable causes.


Still, communities of color bear the brunt of environmentally-related health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency found that Black Americans are 54% more likely to carry health burdens related to living near toxic facilities. Furthermore, petrochemical industries, like ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum, have a notorious track record of polluting non-white communities. The majority shareholders of these companies are institutional investors, and thus, are overwhelmingly white. Mutual fund holders such as The Vanguard Group are heavily invested in the petrochemical industry. In addition, the petrochemical industry plays a large role in polluting developing countries through their persistent push for single-use plastics production, which harms lower-income families and primarily women, yet another social injustice.

Race should not be framed as a divisive construct. Instead, race should be a metric for appropriately distributing resources to help create equity in under-served communities. The principles of environmental justice are not based on a fight between Black, Brown and white people, or minority and majority. Rather, it is a struggle between corporate interests and population health.

Human lives are interlinked and families depend on politicians, including children.

Historically privileged groups who lean into political rhetoric refusing to call out racism are not acknowledging the root cause of social inequities and environmental degradation. But when Earth loses its capacity to heal, no one will be immune to the resulting toxicity – not even the wealthy decision-makers who exacerbated this crisis.

Consumers can use biodegradable and reusable bags to shop, drive electric vehicles, and refrain from using fossil fuels. But the most effective way to decrease carbon emissions, shut down plastics production, and bring environmental justice to all communities is to advocate politically for communities of color. Holding local representatives accountable is important. For years activists have been vocally fighting and holding hunger strikes to block General Iron from setting up metal shredding factories in Pilsen after they had been ousted from Lincoln Park. Recently, Pilsen communities won the battle largely because they repeatedly demonstrated and kept their struggle in the spotlight. By elevating the voices of impacted communities, and joining forces with them, change can happen.

Adding your name to the fight for environmental justice is also essential. For example, Earthjustice has a signable form letter to stop a bill that would send millions of dollars to the petrochemical industry. And finally, be more cognizant of financial investments, including retirement funds, that ultimately cause harm to frontline communities. Although the petrochemical industry has traditionally brought high returns to investors, a new investor is needed for the future – one who is willing to forego short-term gains for long-term environmental sustainability. Invest green, and rest assured that everyone will breathe easier.

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