Communities across the United States are located near industrial sites that are contaminated with toxic wastes. To address this problem, Congress passed a law called Superfund to pay for cleaning up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites. One in four Americans lives within four miles of a Superfund toxic waste site. Toxic chemicals at many of these sites have been linked to birth defects, brain damage and cancer. A California study showed that children born to women within a quarter mile of a Superfund site are at increased risk of birth defects. However, in recent years, funding for cleaning up Superfund sites has fallen dramatically, and the rate of cleanup has slowed.
In addition, industrial facilities across the country emit tens of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into our air, land and water. Right to know laws require that companies report their releases of toxic chemicals, but in recent years many companies have pushed to weaken these reporting requirements, citing security concerns in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Who Is Affected?
A disproportionate number of toxic waste sites are located in or near low income communities and communities of color. In addition, many sites that are still releasing toxic chemicals into the environment are located in these communities in large part because many companies believe that low income citizens lack the knowledge and power to fight against toxic plants locating in their communities. Extreme examples of this phenomenon include Lousiana’s “Cancer Alley” a string of largely low income and African American communities where many of the nation’s largest chemical manufacturing plants are located. Residents of these communities suffer from high rates of cancer and their children suffer from birth defects and neurological damage due to high rates of exposure to dangerous chemicals.
What You Can Do
Find out what sources of toxic chemicals are located in your community. The Environmental Defense Scorecard contains a wealth of information about toxic releases into the environment in a database that can be searched by zip code. It also gives information on the health impacts of the chemicals that are released in your community, allows you to compare your community with other communities across the country and provides opportunities and ideas for taking action.
Work with others in your community to advocate change—start a letter writing campaign to the polluters in your neighborhood or to your elected officials asking for them to cut down or stop putting harmful chemicals into your neighborhood. Many of the most polluted areas already have citizen’s groups dedicated to getting the polluters out of their communities.
Find out where your elected officials stand on toxics issues. Attend town meetings and ask them tough questions or write letters and ask for their position on the issue. You can also look for information from national and state groups that track the environmental voting records of elected officials such as the League of Conservation Voters or your state conservation voter league.
Register to vote and vote for candidates who will reduce toxic emissions, fund the cleanup of toxic waste and make all communities safer and healthier.
Information about Superfund toxic waste sites and toxic chemical releases are available from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Information about legislation that impacts toxic waste and toxic releases and the public’s right to know about toxics in their communities is available from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and from OMB Watch.