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[Noah Smith] The poor don’t deserve toxic waste dumps in backyards

The American left has a lot on its plate -- universal health care, climate change, stagnant wages, wealth inequality and more. But there’s one more issue that needs to be added to the list: environmental justice. Poor Americans, especially minorities, are exposed to too many toxins and environmental hazards, destroying their health and harming their opportunities for advancement.

One of the worst hazards is lead. There is now good evidence that banning leaded gasoline contributed to significant drops in crime and improvement in cognitive performance. But lead pipes and paint still are prevalent in aging urban housing, posing a serious threat to kids -- who happen to be particularly vulnerable to its ill-effects. Even small amounts of lead can impair mental performance, and cause other health problems.

But there are plenty of other toxins afflicting Americans’ health. Pesticides from agriculture afflict rural communities. Cancer-causing industrial chemicals leak into waterways. Coal mine waste contains mercury, another toxic heavy metal. Gases released by hydraulic fracturing can cause all sorts of health problems. Nuclear waste can leak, causing cancer, brain and lung damage. Arsenic can contaminate groundwater. Landfills hold a huge variety of toxic chemicals. Mining, septic systems, industrial plants, chemical storage, irrigation systems and many other features of an advanced industrial economy all pose toxic risks for people who live nearby.

There’s little doubt these toxins drive up the country’s health care bills. But the true cost may go far beyond the health issues. Many of these toxins, especially heavy metals and pesticides, have significant effects on brain development. They are associated with known problems like attention deficit disorder. But they have also been shown to hurt mental functioning in ways not classified as official disorders -- reducing learning ability, self-control, emotional well-being and other crucial mental functions. Neurologist David Bellinger estimated in 2012 that heavy metals and pesticides have robbed Americans of a staggering total of 41 million IQ points.

Everyone in America is exposed to these toxins, but some are at much more risk than others. There is voluminous academic literature across several disciplines, including economics, showing that disadvantaged minorities -- in particular, black Americans -- are more likely than others to come into close contact with toxic chemicals. The iconic images of brown lead-filled water gushing from the water pipes in majority-black Flint, Michigan, are an extreme example, but they are emblematic of the environmental hazards faced by similar communities across the country.

This environmental injustice is due to several factors. Black and Hispanic Americans tend to be poorer than other groups, and thus have to rent or buy homes where housing is cheaper -- sometimes because of proximity to toxic waste. Poor and minority communities also probably have less political power, and so are less able to prevent toxic chemical plants, mines, landfills or other polluting facilities from locating near them. They’re also have less power to compel government to spend money on cleaning up pollution in their neighborhoods.

And finally, some of the difference is due to plain old racial discrimination. A new paper by economists Peter Christensen and Christopher Timmins examined the results of audit studies, in which actors of different races pretend to be prospective house buyers. They found that all else equal, real estate agents systematically steer black buyers toward more polluted neighborhoods. Fair housing laws have been unable to prevent this pervasive form of housing discrimination, which may be covert or even subconscious. But the authors estimate that the difference is great enough to account for 100 percent of African-American mothers’ greater likelihood of living near Superfund toxic waste sites.

This environmental injustice almost certainly contributes to many of the social problems that afflict minority communities, from higher crime rates to lower test scores. It also indirectly and directly affects the generally poorer health of black Americans, raising their medical bills and bankruptcy risk. And it reduces mobility for poor minorities, helping maintain the income and wealth gap over generations.

The threat that toxic waste poses to poor and minority Americans should be fought with a multipronged approach. A focused and well-funded national initiative to replace lead pipes and clean up lead paint should be the first order of business. More money for Superfund and other toxic waste cleanup programs should be a priority, and environmental regulations covering factories, mines, landfills and other dangerous facilities should be enforced more strictly. Needless to say, the current administration is going in precisely the wrong direction on these issues, but environmental cleanup should be a top priority for the next one.

Discrimination also needs to be addressed. The government should crack down on steering of poor minorities toward polluted neighborhoods. And it should more protect poor minority communities from companies and municipal authorities that seek to place toxic facilities in their midst.

Environmental justice might not sound as bold or transformative as universal health care or other big programs now being proposed by the left. But its impact could be no less important for the quality of life enjoyed by disadvantaged minorities and the poor.

Noah Smith
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.