A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE by Harriet A. Washington


Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind
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A veteran journalist and scholar reveals the long-ranging impacts of environmental racism on black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.

In this heart-wrenching exposé, the author of Medical Apartheid (2007) zeroes in on the “chemical Armageddon” that has “preferentially affected” black, Indigenous, and Latinx peoples with “chemicals known or strongly suspected to lower intelligence.” To frame her thorough study, Washington (Infectious Madness: The Surprising Science of How We "Catch" Mental Illness, 2016, etc.) uses the flawed metric of IQ scores. Though she acknowledges their faulty premise and biased administration, she uses them to describe cognitive impacts because the scores serve as “a predictor of success in school, social settings, work achievements, and lifetime earnings.” Citing cases around the United States, Washington clearly presents her research on the expansive effects of toxins, heavy metals, and even drugs that are disproportionately funneled into marginalized communities of color: lead contamination in Baltimore and Flint, where the “water’s lead levels were so high that it fell into the EPA’s classification for hazardous waste”; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) poisoning in Anniston, Alabama (“a PCB concentration of just 5 parts per billion in a pregnant mother’s blood can have adverse effects on a developing fetal brain”), and the forced implantation of the toxic Norplant (“a surgically inserted contraceptive that can be removed only by a physician and lasts for five years”) in black and Latin women. Along with many other well-documented examples, these injustices reveal a chilling reality: Marginalized people of color face not only rampant public health impacts, but also societal blame for their plight. The author also offers “steps that individuals can take to fight for a less toxic environment,” uplifting the grassroots environmental justice organizing of black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. She also provides a helpful glossary and long list of “Known Chemical Brain Drainers.” The book falls short only in its lack of a discussion of ableism and its role in marginalizing those with altered cognitive development.

A devastatingly important read.

Pub Date: July 23rd, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-316-50943-5
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Little, Brown Spark
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