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Environmental connections to public health >>

Pollution in people: It's an inside job

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Beverly Wright has done battle with oil refineries and landfills. She has dug her New Orleans East neighborhood out from under tons of contaminated sludge smeared across the landscape by Hurricane Katrina. A professor, author and leader of the environmental justice movement, she has trained and organized thousands of people to help low income communities stand up against polluters.

Photo: Jennifer Hill Kelley, Beverly Wright, Julian Canales-Ortiz, Suzie Canales, Jean Salone

But last week, Wright was stunned to learn that she was also under assault from her water, her food, her household products, even her perfumes, soaps and moisturizers.

Biomonitoring tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group found Wright's body polluted with up to 39 toxins, including mercury, lead, perfluorchemicals used in Teflon, stain and water resistant textile coatings, flame retardants, synthetic fragrances and rocket fuel.

"I'm very disappointed," Wright said, "to find out that while we were fighting so hard to get chemicals we know are dangerous reduced in the environment, there were so many chemicals inside our homes that were also poisoning us. That puts us in double jeopardy - and I say triple jeopardy because of our skin color."

Other environmental justice leaders who participated in EWG's body burden tests, released last week, echoed Wright's sense of betrayal. These are smart, savvy women who've made intense studies of local industries spewing filth into their neighborhoods. They've gathered literally years of data about the cancer and serious illness rates where they live. They know their stuff.

Or so they thought.

Until they found out, through the EWG-commissioned body burden tests, that their stuff is loaded with unregulated, undisclosed chemicals that have been shown in laboratory tests to cause harm to animals.

The chemical industry argues that just because a product like bisphenol A causes permanent damage to young animals, that doesn't mean it will hurt humans in early life.

These women don't think so.

Every day, they live with pollution perpetrated by heavy industry, and they now realize their homes aren't a safe harbor. My blood is full of plastic?

"I've made very specific choices in my life, because of my daughter, to try to live a more sustainable life," said Jennifer Hill-Kelley, an environmental policy consultant with the Oneida Nation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Kelley's day job: working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on restoring the tribe's waterways, heavily contaminated by mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, that a paper company dumped into nearby Fox River and Green Bay.

"I'm very frustrated to learn of the bisphenol A [a plastics chemical and synthetic estrogen] that is high concentration in me," she say. "And the flame retardants and the musks. I'm concerned the choices I made aren't good enough for my seven-year-old daughter -- because my exposures are her exposures."

Jean Salone, who has spent years fighting the Citgo oil refinery across her Corpus Christi neighborhood's fenceline, has been careful since her 2001 bout with breast cancer to drink only bottled water and eat non-homegrown vegetables. (Her backyard soil is contaminated with benzene from the refinery.) Her blood tested high for bisphenol A, which, as she soon learned, was used to manufacure all those water bottles. As well, her body burden includes flame retardants, non-stick chemicals and 37 to 42 other toxins.


Suzie canales, julian, lois capps.jpg

Suzie Canales launched Corpus Christi's Citizens for Environmental Justice after her sister died of breast cancer at 42. Confronting the largest cluster of oil refineries in the U.S., the group organized body burden studies that documented soaring blood benzene levels and a shockingly high birth defect rate in the city.


Photo: Suzie Canales, Julian Canales, Rep. Lois Capps, D-CA

Her own bisphenol A level measured high - and, she fears, that also means a high level for her six-year-old grandson Julian, who lives with her and who was born with a hole in his heart.

"The law is broken...."

"His body is still developing," Canales said, gesturing at Julian, who accompanied her to Washington. "What's really upsetting and makes me angry is, for too long, the government has bent over backward to protect corporations at the expense of the people, of children. Why are so many children having asthma, birth defects? Why is there so much cancer? It's because industry is unregulated as far as these chemicals go. The law is broken, the law needs to be reformed, to protect the people, not the billion-dollar corporations."


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