In the Classroom: Not all Communities are Polluted Equally – Challenges for Environmental Justice
The fine particulates from diesel buses is a major cause of asthma in Roxbury. ACE was successful in convincing the city to convert a substantial portion of these buses over to cleaner burning fuels and to stop idling engines when not in use. As a result, air quality has improved significantly around the terminal.
The human health implications of these ecological disparities are far-reaching. Air pollution is a major cause of respiratory disease in Massachusetts residents, especially in working class communities. In Massachusetts, more than 397,000 adults and 77,300 children now have asthma. Roxbury – a low income community of color neighboring Northeastern University and home to an incredible seven trash transfer stations and one of the busiest diesel bus depots in Boston – has one of the highest hospitalization rates for childhood asthma in the state.
Exposure to industrial chemicals is also believed by scientists to be contributing to the dramatic increases since the 1950s in cancer of the testis, prostate gland, kidney, breast, skin, and lung, as well as malignant myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and numerous childhood cancers – a cancer epidemic that kills half-a-million Americans each year. In Massachusetts, elevated childhood leukemia rates are linked to the industrial chemical trichloroethylene found in the town of Woburn’s drinking water.
In order to get a first-hand look at these disparities, our class took a tour of Roxbury. The tour was led by Kalila Barnett, the Executive Director of Alternatives for Community and Environment. ACE is a Roxbury-based organization that, among other projects, works to redefine asthma as an environmental justice problem rather than a medical problem. ACE wants to achieve a healthy, livable, and sustainable community by advocating for safe, family-supporting jobs in clean industries; healthy and affordable homes; accessible and clean public transportation; zoning and land use planning that accentuates the cultural, economic, social, and natural assets of a community; sufficient public parks, greenfields, and recreational spaces; good schools, libraries, health clinics and hospitals, childcare, and other essential social services; racial equality and economic justice; and a profound respect for cultural diversity.
On this tour, our students played witness to the profound ecological disparities borne by Roxbury residents. More importantly, they were afforded the opportunity to engage in dialogue directly with the activists that are working to remedy the environmental injustices confronting the community. In so doing, these students crossed the profound class, racial and ethnic boundaries that have historically divided the people of Boston from one another – barriers that have prevented the adoption of more holistic solutions to the ecological crisis.
Prof. Daniel Faber, Sociology