Friday, 5 Oct 2001

NEW YORK, N.Y.

I’m not exactly sure where this week went. Today I hope to tie up as many loose ends as I can. First I have to finish writing and editing the preface to the supplementary issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. All four authors met on Wednesday to go through our draft again; now I’m going to incorporate our edits and add a few sentences, and send it around one last time for feedback. Hopefully we’ll be able to get this off to the EHP editors by next week and I can put this project on the back burner until April, when the issue will be published. Then we’ll work to disseminate it to a broad audience of environmental justice activists, so it reaches a much wider audience than the environmental health scientists who generally read this journal.

I’m almost through with our edits when the phone rings. “Swati, do you know what the active ingredients of roach gels and traps are?” asks a scientist from another research center we work with, the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. The Columbia Center is looking at the health effects of various environmental exposures on babies and children, and WE ACT is their community partner. Part of the research they’re doing includes an educational intervention called “Healthy Home, Healthy Child,” in which we educate mothers on ways to reduce their children’s exposures to home environmental hazards, including pests and pesticides. I put my caller on speaker phone while I consult the collection of pesticides I’ve picked up from the 99 cent stores in my neighborhood. WE ACT uses these pesticides as props when we do community outreach to encourage the use of integrated pest management. Many 99 cent stores in low-income communities sell the most toxic pesticides available on the market. Fortunately I haven’t recently come across any containing Dursban (which was pulled from the market last year but took a while to disappear from the street vendors and 99 cent stores up here), but there are still plenty that contain diazinon and chlorpyrifos. I sort through my collection — Black Jack Ratonicide, Raid Ant spray, boric acid (the less toxic alternative we encourage) — but don’t find any roach gels or traps. We find some outdated information on the web and finally Robin decides to conduct some field research by cruising her local 99 cent store and picking up whatever is on the shelves today.

After I get off the phone, I leave a message for the concerned mother who called Monday asking about environmental hazards stemming from the World Trade Center disaster. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of good news for her. While it was somewhat helpful to consult with various scientists, many of them gave me predictably scientific answers: “I’d want to look at the sampling methodology myself to see if the technique
s used were the most accurate,” etc. One person tells me he’s heard that the asbestos used in the Twin Towers was made of chrysotile, which is the least toxic of the various forms of asbestos. As near as I can tell, some isolated samples (particularly those taken shortly after the disaster) show a few individual pollutants to be at elevated levels. But for the most part, what the public is being told is that there is no longer reason to be concerned about environmental health hazards outside of the cordoned-off vicinity of the WTC site. I don’t know if this somewhat-confusing information will be encouraging to the mother or not. For every parent and resident who is concerned about health risks and air quality, there are an equal number of individuals who are desperate to return to “life as normal,” and would rather not let environmental health concerns be a stumbling block on that path.

The repercussions from the World Trade Center disaster are rippling through the environmental movement in this city, and possibly all over the country. (It’s hard to have that perspective from here). Politicians at all levels of the government, from our mayor to our president, are urging everybody to try to “resume life as normal,” implying that this is the patriotic thing to do. In some convoluted way this seems to be pitting health and environmental concerns against patriotism and loyalty to our country. I’m very worried about potential long-term health risks being sacrificed in the response to this acute crisis; worried about censorship and intimidation of concerned residents and activists; worried even about writing these thoughts down. Every government body that is conducting monitoring downtown has a vested interest in not causing panic, in promoting a sense of safety and security. Let’s face it, the idealized objectivity of science was lost during the terrorist attacks. Environmental health concerns no longer exist in the same context that they did the day before the attacks. Now the backdrop to our work is “the threat of terrorism,” or “giving in to terrorism,” and the looming cost of attempting to avoid exposure is semi-permanent displacement, a concept no New Yorker can really accept.

Here’s a concrete example of my general concerns about the environmental costs of the World Trade Center disaster: although it’s true that most of the individual contaminants that are being monitored are below levels of concern, what about the effects of breathing in all of these contaminants together? Cumulatively these exposures could have adverse health effects. Because our approach to environmental risk assessment has never adequately addressed the issue of cumulative exposure, right now there’s no good way to evaluate the true risk to New Yorkers.

Children play near a chemical plant in Norco, La.

Photo: Environmental Justice Fund.

My intense reverie is broken by a phone call from a friend asking if I’ll make it down to the 10 year anniversary of the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, taking place in Washington, D.C., later this month. This historic summit, which was held in Washington in 1991, was the first national gathering of environmental activists of color from around the country. It was during this conference that the landmark Principles of Environmental Justice were formulated. These are the principles that guide my work as an environmental justice activist. This year’s anniversary event will include a one-day press conference and a smaller gathering in D.C.; the Second National People of Color Environmental Summit will take place next year. It was a little too early in my environmental justice career to attend that first summit in 1991, so I can’t wait until next year’s event to connect with environmental justice activists from around the country (like those working in neighborhoods in Norco, La., where residents live 20 feet from the border of chemical refineries). Making these connections will be an invaluable way for me to emotionally and intellectually “recharge,” and continue to live the passion of organizing to improve environmental health in low-income communities of color.