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To reduce poverty, let's stop literally poisoning the poor
New research shows how industrial chemicals polluting our environment are also poisoning poor children
West Virginia's recent chemical spill illustrated how pollution affects the poor.
West Virginia's recent chemical spill illustrated how pollution affects the poor. (LISA HECHESKY/Reuters/Corbis)
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new report from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health indicates six industrial chemicals that can harm developing brains, evidently by causing changes in neuron development associated with reduced IQ, aggressive behavioral traits, and poor school performance in children. This report comes on the heels of a 2006 report that cited another three: lead, toluene, and arsenic — all of them relatively common industrial chemicals. That children may be exposed to environmental pollutants is bad enough, but tease the report out a little more and it becomes even more troubling.

The fact is, the poor often bear a disproportionate burden of harm when it comes to suffering from poisonous environments.

Take lead, for example: That even low levels of lead exposure can be disastrously dangerous to children and their communities has been well established for sometime, but it still affects one group of children more than others. The CDCl reports that "children living at or below the poverty line who live in older housing are at greatest risk" for exposure to lead.

But lead is only one of many environmental risks posed to poor people, and its outcomes — among them cognitive impairment — are only a piece of the tapestry of damage done to the overall health of poor communities by toxic environments.

A hundred little injuries make up the overall story. Asthma rates are much higher among those living at or below the federal poverty level than those living above it, and the incidence of asthma steadily decreases with rising incomes. Those in the lowest income quintile are twice as likely to develop epilepsy as those in the highest. Even cancer is powerfully linked to poverty, with one physician of the American Cancer Society calling poverty "one of the most potent carcinogens — rivaling tobacco and obesity — that we have ever seen."

Given the living circumstances of many poor Americans, it is no surprise that their health is so endangered. A landmark report by the United Church of Christ's Justice and Witness Ministries spanning twenty years points out that, among shocking disparities in the racial makeup of communities that host commercial hazardous waste facilities, "poverty rates in the host neighborhoods are 1.5 times greater than non­host areas (18 percent vs. 12 percent)." While living in the shadow of hazardous waste facilities is occasion enough for exposure to environmental pollutants, poor communities are often also subject to mishandling and maltreatment by local industries — a sobering example of which is the recent West Virginia chemical spill, which contaminated the water of 300,000 West Virginians, denizens of the second poorest state in the nation.

Unlike their wealthier counterparts, poor people often have little choice when it comes to where to live. If a person relies upon public housing, then their options are limited to the facilities available — even if those facilities are old, out of date, and have antiquated features like lead paint. Low-income people who do not rely upon public housing still may not have the financial security or reserves to find new employment and move elsewhere, and those who are reliant on public transportation to get to work need to be close to trains, buses and subway lines to make it to work. Poverty functions essentially like a corral, keeping people in place. But the places it keeps people in are notoriously polluted, toxic, and themselves involved in perpetuating cycles of poverty.

After all, if it is the case that poor people are suffering bodily injuries due to the toxic effects visited on impoverished communities, do the typical approaches to relieving poverty — that is, to try to disincentivize welfare and incentivize work, or to promote job skills training, or to encourage businesses to create jobs — have a chance of long term success? It isn't difficult to imagine that they seem set up to fail. When people with chronic illness in part determined by their toxic environments cannot reverse their circumstances despite so many programs that fail to reach the root of the problem, it's easy to view that failure as evidence of malevolence or laziness on behalf of the poor.

In reality, though, the degree to which poverty can be relieved is likely much greater than such fatalistic accounts are willing to accept, but only if the most foundational causes are addressed — polluted environments chief among them. Rescuing poor communities from systematically poisoned spaces is a multi-step process requiring intervention from many levels of government and society, starting with the regulation of industry responsible for the use of so many harmfully deployed chemicals, and continuing on to the update and repair of public housing and infrastructure. But it will also require steady universal access to health care, to undo what damage has already been done, and to diagnose the extent of the harm. At the most local level, it requires that all of us do our part to care for the planet we've been given, and to make the most responsible choices possible about our use of the material world — not only for its own sake, but for those we share it with.

Until poverty relief is framed in such terms of total engagement, it will continue to be construed as their problem — something to be fixed in the context of a few misguided or malicious people — rather than our problem, something we all have a stake in and control of together.

Elizabeth Stoker writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University, a Marshall Scholar, and a current Cambridge University divinity student. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden and catching up on news of the temporal world.

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